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BBC ‘must be allowed to innovate iPlayer’

The BBC must be allowed to innovate its iPlayer on-demand service to compete with international streamers and avoid being seen as a “medium-to-small” industry player, according to its director of policy.

Clare Sumner

The UK pubcaster announced a public consultation on its plans to “reinvent” the service earlier this month, including making all shows available on iPlayer for 12 months after their original broadcast and offering complete box-sets of selected series.

Ofcom has warned the proposals could “significantly affect competition” and “harm competition and other broadcasters.”

However, addressing the UK media regulator’s group director of content and media policy, Kevin Bakhurst, at a Westminster Media Forum yesterday, BBC director of policy Clare Sumner said: “In the recent iPlayer discussions, you define the market quite narrowly. Whilst the BBC is of course a big intervention in the market, it’s not the only one, and in today’s world we look rather medium to small.”

In response, Bakhurst said Ofcom did not believe “the BBC’s long-term strategy on the iPlayer is the wrong strategy,” but added that it was important for the pubcaster to consider how its plans could affect other UK broadcasters.

Speaking on her own panel, Sumner drew attention to the difficult position in which the BBC had been placed by Ofcom, especially in light of the regulator’s annual report last year, which said the Beeb “must go further in areas such as transparency, taking creative risks and attracting young people.”

Sumner said the BBC “must be enabled to innovate and respond to market changes” and that the iPlayer was often the “front door” for young people in terms of discovering BBC content.

“One of the things we can now do in the digital environment is make changes within hours, half an hour even,” she said. “A long regulatory process can sometimes be very difficult to deal with. The alternative would be to prevent the BBC from innovating for the first time in its history. We would become less relevant to younger audiences at a time when they’re telling us they want more from the BBC.”

John McVay, CEO of UK trade body Pact, said Ofcom’s market definitions were correct, reiterating that the BBC’s current iPlayer plans would impact not just broadcasters but also the producers who make the programmes, affecting their ability to draw revenue from further sales to other broadcasters and platforms.

“Many of the programmes that broadcasters enjoy are co-financed. They’re co-financed by rights which are sold to secondary broadcasters either in the UK or Europe,” McVay said. “The iPlayer proposals, as we understand them so far, could be very detrimental to raising secondary finance.”


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