18 Oct 2019

iPlayer revamp cuts to the heart of audience and sports rights transformation

by Matt Stone

The BBC has announced an update of the iPlayer, the 4th since its launch 12 years ago. Where the iPlayer had a 40% share of streaming audience 5 years ago, it’s now down to 15% due to the Netflix effect – even before the launch of Disney Plus and Apple TV in the next 6 months. The look and feel will change, while BBC channels and live events will be integrated alongside box sets with a longer shelf life of up to 1 year. Director General Tony Hall described the changes as a ‘new front door for British creativity’ and a ‘broader shop window’ on BBC platforms.

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What’s the future for the iPlayer and the BBC in a wider context? The Spotify effect, where Millennials skip from track to track with little connection to the artists, is playing out on the BBC. The audience is attached to shows rather than channels. Our most successful clients recognise this. They work hard to ensure their content matches the audience needs and is present on the platforms they use. Our Performance Analytics dashboards help them monitor audience behaviour changes in real-time.

Without this brand weight, what’s the future for the licence fee going forwards? Without a hefty cash injection either from the licence fee payer or subscribers, the BBC will not be able to maintain its current level of competition in the sports rights market.

What’s the effect of all this on sport? The streaming platforms have been relatively slow in picking up the major football properties such as the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the English Premier League. A combination of long-term deals, the set-up expense and the rights price has put off disruptors.

Changes are coming though. All Boxing Day Premier League fixtures will be streamed live by Amazon in a first for the UK market, but all games being available everywhere – for a price – is clearly the future. It may take a while but we will look back on this fragmented market where the audience needs to go through several different gate-keepers as bizarre.

Where does the venerable Beeb fit into this landscape? Attitudes have changed from ten years ago when sports rights would routinely go to the highest bidder with little apparent thought on the effect on the health of the sport which confined the live rights to a niche partner. Cricket’s experience after the Ashes win in 2005, where the sport in its live form disappeared from terrestrial, is a case in point. A key part of the creation of the new ‘Hundred’ format was getting some live games back on terrestrial (but not many – only 10 men’s and 8 women’s games will be shown, and even these will be simulcast with Sky). But this only works if the terrestrial audience is a huge multiple of the newer platforms. With streaming, it’s not clear this will be the case in the medium term. What is clear is there is little appetite in charging a higher licence fee to pay for live sport. Somehow the BBC must square the circle.