The BBC must evolve – not reinvent itself

By Matthew Walters – @matthew_walters – 

Head and shouldersThe streets of Birmingham have witnessed their fair share of moments that ultimately came, in their own way, to define history.  From the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, its streets were home to Boulton and Watt’s development of steam engine technology that came to underpin Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  On those same streets, in the 1820s a Quaker named John Cadbury began selling tea, coffee and drinking chocolate in Bull Street.  And seventy years later, Major John Hall-Edwards – working out of what was then the Birmingham General Hospital (now the city’s Children’s Hospital) made the first use of x-ray under clinical conditions.

Just over a mile from the very spot at which Hall-Edwards so pioneered the field of radiology, three weeks ago Tony Hall – entering his fifth year as the BBC’s Director-General – began 2017 with a New Year message to BBC staff.  The speech, made at The Mailbox (the Corporation’s Birmingham headquarters), was – following a 2016 in which a new eleven-year Royal Charter was achieved despite (perhaps because) of the slow, gradual grind of public and political scrutiny – upbeat, excitable even.  Hall, perhaps predictably and tiredly, spoke of the beginning of a “new chapter” of “boldness”, “originality” and needing to have “the courage of our convictions”.

Despite the lofty rhetoric, little new was announced; instead, amongst a number of corporate announcements, three existing initiatives were restated: greater and wider use of viewer/user data, and so personalisation, across the BBC’s services; developing the breadth and depth of the iPlayer service; and continuing to do “brilliant things” for the BBC’s existing audiences.  Perhaps of most significance, as is our focus here, was Hall’s declared ambition for the BBC to use the next eleven-year charter period to “reinvent” public service broadcasting for “a new generation”.  An elastic – even tricky – phrase, this was the second time in four months these exact words had crossed Hall’s lips.  They warrant a little more attention than the industry has perhaps given them to date.

The public service broadcasting context

One of the greatest challenges of public service broadcasting, for those who both consume for pleasure and/or follow with professional interest, is at its root – how to define it.  During my time at Ofcom, I can very clearly remember long, wide-ranging and reflective discussions at all levels on this very point – attempting to pin down and quantify, to the very closest degree, notions of “public”, “service” and “broadcasting” in a market that is anything but static.

170124 - iPlayer - BBC logoIndeed last year in the lead-up to the publication of the new Charter and Framework Agreement, such considerations came to colour, indeed – at least in public and political discourse – dominate debates over the role of the BBC, especially in relation to that most slippery and elusive of qualities, “distinctiveness”.  This was a term used no less than five times in the Charter published by Karen Bradley’s DCMS in December, and seven times in the published Framework Agreement. This concern – of how to adequately serve the needs of the personal with those of the public, of achieving an equilibrium between universality and individuality – is not a new one. It is, however, one that is perennial, and it’s a tension that can never truly be resolved.

And yet the BBC, in the eyes of the watching audience, haven’t been doing a bad job in this respect – at least up until now.  My former employers Ofcom have identified, and indeed continue to measure, the performance of the PSB channels (including their wider portfolio brands), across purposes and characteristics – and such data provides the backbone to its PSB Annual Report.[1]

  • PSB purposes, as set out in the report, include “informing our understanding of the world”, “stimulating knowledge and learning”, “reflecting UK cultural identity”, and “representing diversity”.
  • Characteristics, as relating to PSB programming, include it being “high quality”, “original”, “innovative”, “challenging”, “widely available” and “distinctive”.

Even when set against the fact that over seven in ten adults (73%) are satisfied with PSB overall, and that they continue to rate PSB on the basis of the purposes and characteristics above, the BBC has historically outperformed its competitors – and continues to.  In 2015, BBC One rated highest for programming that was “trustworthy” (79%), that “helps me understand what’s going on in the world” (81%), and is reflective of “different parts of the UK” (71%).  It rated highest for “high quality” (82%) and “original” programming (70%).  Its sister channel BBC Two rated highly for programming that is “high quality” (81%) and “distinctive” (60%).  BBC Three (66%) and BBC Four (65%) too scored highly for “distinctiveness”.

In a wider media environment that is not just a competition of brand scale and economics but a tussle for time, attention and loyalty, the BBC – at least on current evidence – would be wise in this next Charter period to follow a path of careful evolution, rather than one of unguarded reinvention.  The majority of its audience not only currently respects and appreciates what it does, but the means by which it does it as well.  This should be its starting point.  Such considerations also apply to the three initiatives Hall revisited earlier this month.

  1. Data and a “flight to quality”

Returning to Hall’s New Year message, he described personalisation as a “major priority” for the Corporation, stating that the capture and use of data in the industry (with a nod to Amazon and Netflix) is creating “a flight to quality”.  For Hall, sign-in allows audiences to find the “best of public service broadcasting”, and is what the BBC’s future success “will depend on”.  A “closer” and “more personal” relationship with audiences will make viewers more likely to choose the BBC.  He repeated plans, first announced in September last year[2], to increase the number of active signed-in users across the BBC’s services – from three million to twenty million “as quickly as possible”.  This begins later this year with plans to force sign-in across some versions of the BBC’s iPlayer, iPlayer Radio and mobile/tablet apps.  Though perhaps we should leave aside for another day the question of to what degree viewers do and will value a “personalised” BBC experience, the course has very clearly been set.

170124 - iPlayer - Log InAnd yet obstacles are strewn in the BBC’s path.  Sign-in is currently restricted to desktop, mobile and tablet versions of the iPlayer and related services – and yet these, when taken individually, aren’t even the most popular devices through which the iPlayer is consumed.  Looking at December’s iPlayer Performance Pack, it’s connected TVs that are the most used device to watch iPlayer content – growing 7% year-on-year to deliver 7.48 million unique streams across the month.[3]  For comparison, 4.19 million unique streams were requested on tablets, 3.6 million on mobile, and 3.55 million on desktops/laptops.  There is currently a glaring, television-shaped hole in the BBC’s sign-in plans, one made all the more puzzling by the announcement in the Autumn by one BBC exec that it wouldn’t seek to roll out log-in to the “big screen” implementations of the service.[4]  Not only that, any login on a shared device in the home such as a smart TV – if introduced – would by necessity be more suited to drawing back data at a household- or group-level, rather than data relating to individual users.

That’s without mentioning iPlayer delivered via the major television platforms themselves, though the data – due to the quirks of the iPlayer Performance Pack – is quite challenging to come by.  In May last year, the latest month for which accurate and specific data is available, 19% of requests – a total of 10.03m weekly (and non-uniques) – were delivered to Sky, Virgin Media, YouView and BT Vision homes, each currently (and for the foreseeable future) without the option to sign in and each a missed opportunity in terms of data and insight that could be gleaned.

The BBC, as all broadcasters, needs to recalibrate its relationship with the major platforms if it is serious about fully measuring and representing each and every facet of the iPlayer user base.  The flow of data between broadcaster and platform is patchy at best currently.  A mutually beneficial relationship can and should be reached whereby the BBC as broadcaster shares household-level insight with the platforms on which the iPlayer is carried, and vice versa, under a single user sign-in – most sensibly sitting under the platform login credentials that Sky, Virgin, BT and TalkTalk viewers already possess.  This would provide household- (i.e. family-/group-) level data, rather than individual user/viewer data, but it would at least be a helpful start.

Yes, each platform is different, in terms of the navigation it provides, the content it offers, and – in the case of the BBC – the attribution its brands receive.  But such matters should not be glossed over just because they are difficult, be that politically or technically.  The relationship between the broadcasters and the platforms, in terms of the flow of consumption data between both parties, needs reframing and redrawing.  This is not a criticism of the BBC, nor any particular platform, though the argument remains.  There is a meeting in the middle to be found.  A true understanding of these forms of viewer behaviour, for all concerned, won’t be possible until one is.

  1. “Reinventing” the iPlayer 

The BBC, as perhaps could be expected, was keen to tell the industry that the iPlayer had a very strong Christmas. And indeed it did: the week beginning 26th December saw 69.3 million requests, more than any other week in the service’s history, in a month where it had averaged not only its highest number of aggregate requests (281 million, with 16% directed towards live TV) but some of its highest daily totals (9.1m TV requests per day) ever recorded. The New Year’s Day episode of Eastenders, leading the charts, generated over 1.3 million requests alone.[5]

Such festive success may have provided the impetus behind Hall’s words as he told staff in his New Year message of the BBC’s “need” to “reinvent” the iPlayer, demanding it evolve from “catch-up service” to a “must-visit destination” in its own right.  Not only this, he declared his goal for the iPlayer to be the “number one online TV service in the UK”, and spoke of “doubling” reach and quadrupling the time users spend on iPlayer by 2020.

Such statements were, at face value, puzzling.  By many measures, including some contained in Decipher’s Mediabug report (further information on our latest report, Wave 9, can be found here), the BBC iPlayer is already the UK’s leading broadcaster player by use.  According to our own analysis, for example, 54% of the UK online adult population use the BBC iPlayer at least once per month across set-top boxes, web and connected devices.  It is the most popular VOD service across every device class, from set-top boxes, to connected devices and smart TVs.  And in terms of name and brand recognition as a catch-up service, the iPlayer leads its competitors by some distance – both nationally and internationally.  Its dominant position as a catch-up service seems unassailable, at least in the medium term.

170124 - iPlayer - ChannelsIf the BBC truly craves the mantle of the UK’s “number one online TV service” for the iPlayer, it is actually in encouraging growth in live viewing that will get it there – not in growing consumption of on-demand content, as one would expect.  A look at the latest TV Player Report from BARB is instructive in this sense.[6]  Putting aside its limitations (it measures only iOS, Android and web versions of a select number of broadcaster players), BARB’s data paints the iPlayer in a positive light.  In terms of total minutes spent with the service (live and on-demand) in the week ending 8th January, it was the most popular service – a combined total of 682m minutes consumed, well ahead of the near 174m combined minutes consumed via Sky Go, the platform’s TV Everywhere app, and the 132m combined minutes consumed via ITV Hub.  BBC One was the most streamed live channel, with 92.5m minutes consumed, a whole 26m ahead of the next most popular streamed live channel, Sky Sports 1.  And the top 15 streamed programmes for that particular week were all BBC ones, ranging from Sherlock to Eastenders, Silent Witness and Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Yet there is one particular metric by which the BBC iPlayer achieves, and has consistently achieved, only second place: live streaming.  Whereas over 130m minutes of live content were streamed via the iPlayer in this one week, over 166m were streamed through Sky Go.  And the particular week under the microscope is not an exceptional one.  A casual look at any number of past TV Player Reports show a jostling for top spot between the iPlayer and Sky Go, with the latter most often winning out.  Readers will rightly argue that we’re not exactly comparing like-with-like here: iPlayer is a broadcaster catch-up player, comprising live streams of ten channels (if we excuse Radio 1 as a “channel”), whereas Sky Go is a platform TV Everywhere service comprising upwards of fifty live channel streams (depending on your pay TV subscription).  Live streaming has existed as a feature of Sky Go (in its different manifestations, and under its different names) for a number of years, whereas it is only in the last twelve months that all cross-device and cross-platform implementations of the iPlayer have gained the ability to live stream BBC channels.

Yet at least the leader has been identified.  Sky Go may be ahead, but it is in the BBC’s sights.  Ironically, especially for a service that has so come to be associated with the very activity of “catching up” on TV, it is by returning to (and growing) the BBC’s core – the viewing of its live channels – that will cement the iPlayer’s reputation as the UK’s premier online TV destination.

  1. “Forsaking our existing audiences…would be stupid”

And, yet, it is easy to get carried away.  The BBC is not the iPlayer, just as the iPlayer is not the BBC.  Indeed, the BBC’s significance and importance extends far beyond the black and pink of its catch-up player.  It is a piece of a much broader and more complicated jigsaw.  Hall admitted as much when he described having to “ride two horses: doing brilliant things on our existing channels and services, but also innovating in the digital space”.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 28/07/2015 - Programme Name: The Great British Bake Off - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: +++Publication of this image is strictly embargoed until 00.01 hours Tuesday July 28th 2015+++ Paul Hollywood, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Mary Berry, The Great British Bake Off contestants - (C) Love Productions - Photographer: Mark Bourdillon

It is a point worth stressing again, as we have on these pages down the years, that viewing via the iPlayer – though growing – remains a small proportion of the total consumption of BBC content.  The lion’s share is still directed towards live.  And, here, the BBC continues to flourish.  By late December, the BBC had recorded 31 of the year’s top 40 audiences – The Great British Bake Off final (consolidated average of 15.9m) and Planet Earth II (consolidated average of 13.1m) amongst them.  Engaged as it is in, using Hall’s words, a “competition for time” with other television and video services – live and on demand – these figures remain impressive achievements.  Few institutions, let alone broadcasters, retain the ability to shape the tone of the national conversation in quite this way.

As for viewing, so too for share and reach.  Even as live viewing to the television set, and across devices, has come under pressure in recent years, the reach of the PSBs – the BBC included – remains impressive and resilient.  Over half (51%) of all television viewing is still to the main five PSB channels, rising to 71% of all television viewing when you include the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 portfolio channels.  The startling thing is that the PSB’s share of all television viewing, when taking into account their portfolio channels, has only dropped 6% in the years since 2005 – even despite all of the technological change the industry has undergone.[7]   Over the same period, the weekly reach of the PSB channels (plus their portfolios) has stayed high – 86%, down from 90% in 2005 –  as has the reach of BBC One, at 72% (down from 2005’s 80%).  The core channel propositions of the PSBs retain not only their importance, but also their reach.

The shape of how the average person consumes television and video will undoubtedly have changed by the end of the new Charter period in 2027 – what is watched, how much is watched, and on which device.  On that point, almost everyone across the industry is in agreement.  Yet, at the start of this new Charter period, the BBC – as with the other PSBs – needs to play to its strengths.  Evolution, rather than revolution, should be the watchword.  Live television, on average, still occupies the lion’s share of the video consumed each day by UK adults[8], as it does for the 16-24s[9] and the 6-15s.[10]  Linear channels, and the live schedule, matter and will continue to matter.  As it looks to the future, the BBC simply must not prioritise only the iPlayer’s development at the expense of its wider portfolio.  The BBC, its watching audiences, and public service broadcasting in general need and deserve so much more than that.

Final thoughts

It is this message that the BBC must carry through this next Charter period.  PSB, the BBC included, does not need reinventing – it needs to evolve.  And it must be a careful, balanced evolution – one that respects the heritage it is coming from as well as the direction it is heading in.  This piece doesn’t argue that broadcasters shouldn’t innovate.  It doesn’t argue they shouldn’t be ambitious.  Instead, it argues that broadcasters (of all shapes, sizes and content types) should seek to listen to and move with their audiences, not grate against them.  This applies as much to channel brands and content formats as it does to new service propositions and new means of distribution.

More data and insight is of course valuable to any organisation, and the rise and growth of sophisticated, detailed broadcaster-, platform- and industry-wide measurement systems will be one of the television industry’s great opportunities and challenges in the next five years.  Yet the industry not only requires greater levels of data, but greater levels of intelligence to make sense of this.  In the case of the BBC, this will mean exploiting – as best it can – insight from user behaviour to deliver a more tailored viewer experience, whilst leaving room for users to stumble upon new content and formats serendipitously.

As for the iPlayer and its wider portfolio, the BBC should throughout this next Charter period recognise that the iPlayer is its vehicle, not its totality.  The importance of channels, and channel brands, remains.  As unfashionable as it may be to say it, live viewing of its channels – even despite all of the competing alternatives – continues to be resilient and significant across each and every age group.  And viewers continue to appreciate the BBC as broadcaster, and value the notion of PSB as a construct. This is a position of promise, but one that could easily become perilous.  The BBC must tread carefully.   Perhaps then, and only then, Hall will have achieved the equilibrium – as he describes it – of the “traditional…delivered…in innovative, new ways”.

We will be re-evaluating the role of broadcast as part of its latest series of open, public and ticketed Antenna media education sessions.  The next of these takes place next Tuesday (31st January) at the IAB in London’s Covent Garden, with a few tickets still remaining.  Click here for more information.

Further London, Manchester and Dublin dates will be announced in due course.











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