BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, has launched the global version of the iPlayer as an iPad app. The application is now available in 11 European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland), and allows customers to access programmes from the distributor. Unlike in Britain, where the iPlayer led the way in offering a true multi-device proposition, the global iPlayer will only be available on the iPad for at least a year. However, unlike the domestic version, the international application allows customers not only to stream content using 3G or Wi-Fi, but also to download programmes to the tablet for offline viewing.
The service comes in two flavours; one offers up to 12 hours of long-form content, supported by pre-roll ads and sponsorships (now it's a travel body Visit Britain), for free. The other requires a subscription of €6.99 (£6.12) per month, or €49.99 (£43.70) annually.
The content offer outside the UK is not as broad as the domestic iPlayer, but customers will get access to a mixture of classic and contemporary English-language content, such as Top Gear, Eastenders and Doctor Who. The subscription version kicked off with about 1,500 hours of content, and BBC is planning to add about 100 hours of programmes every month.
The European roll out is the first phase of BBC Worldwide's plan to offer an 'over the top' (OTT), direct to consumer (d2c) subscription service. Further roll outs are expected to follow, notably in the US, which is widely believed to be on the cards before the end of 2011. Nevertheless, the market for English-language TV in many international markets is always going to be relatively niche; how well the international iPlayer fares is going to depend to a great extent on how well BBC Worldwide continues to develop the product.
The first iteration of international iPlayer has learned many of the lessons from earlier subscription services, both in offering a free component and leveraging connected devices (specifically the iPad) which have helped to foster adoption of other subscription services. However IHS Screen Digest believes that if the service is going to become a significant OTT player then a number of other components must be in place. Notably:
- The service must become available on more connected devices. The lesson from both Netflix and Hulu Plus is that broad adoption comes from offering the content on the screen where consumers want to watch it. The iPad, and indeed the iOS ecosystem more generally, are increasingly only one part of consumers' connected lives. While they are unquestionably a good place to start because of Apple's dominance of the tablet market and its consumers' relatively high willingness to pay for content, any mass market subscription service will have to move beyond a single platform and embrace other connected devices like games consoles and connected TVs
- In strong pay TV markets, like the US, BBC Worldwide is going to have to strike a balance between developing its d2c ambitions and maintaining its established revenue from pay TV carriage fees. This is far from being an easy task, but it is key if BBC Worldwide is going to succeed in having a foot in both pay TV channel and OTT service provider camps. As things stand, in the US the premium networks, like HBO, have decided to tie their approach to the operators business, for the time being anyway. But for non-premium cable channels the picture is a little murkier; while the potential threat to carriage fees remains, likes of MTV, SyFy and A&E have made some programmes available via Hulu's subscription service Hulu Plus. However the market positioning is appreciably different from the international iPlayer, an MTV show on Hulu plus is available through an aggregator, the international iPlayer is a d2c proposition and BBC Worldwide may find that this garners a rather different response from the major US operators.
- In utility pay TV markets, like Germany, BBC Worldwide will need to convince consumers to pay up to a half of their total monthly pay TV bill (monthly pay TV ARPU in Germany is €13) for a limited selection of content they could receive as part of an extended basic package. IHS Screen Digest estimates that BBC Wordwide's entertainment channels reached around 550,000 German TV households at the end of 2010. While in a market like this BBC Worldwide has less carriage fee revenue that it needs to protect, this is also a market where, outside of the British expat community, value-conscious consumers are less likely to deem the brand worth an additional monthly subscription expense