The BBC, a bastion of British broadcasting, faces a defining challenge in the streaming era, where services like Netflix and Disney+ are reshaping how we watch TV.
Ofcom’s ‘BBC Audiences Review’, published today, reveals stark numbers – and BBC iPlayer’s role in this new world is under scrutiny.
While iPlayer offered a substantial 28,439 hours of content in 2022, it pales in comparison to Netflix’s towering 49,690 hours. This numeric gap underscores the struggle of traditional broadcasters in an on-demand landscape.
But it gets even worse when you ask people how they perceive iPlayer – which means the BBC has a usability AND an image problem, when it comes to their streaming app.
BBC iPlayer’s Identity Crisis
BBC iPlayer, once a pioneering force in the UK’s streaming landscape, now faces an identity crisis in a market saturated with on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video, and Disney+.
Ofcom’s BBC Audiences Review sheds light on this struggle, highlighting key areas where iPlayer seems to lag behind its competitors and what this means for the everyday British viewer (especially when iPlayer is supported by the TV Licence fee, and not a subscription model).
Perception as a ‘Catch-Up’ Service: The primary challenge for BBC iPlayer is its public perception. Originally designed as a platform for catch-up television, iPlayer has struggled to shake off this image.
The report underscores that while iPlayer is a go-to for revisiting missed BBC broadcasts (from the BBC’s linear channels), it is less frequented for new or niche content discovery.
This contrasts sharply with the algorithms of other streaming giants, which actively push a mix of familiar and unexplored content to their viewers.
As a result, iPlayer risks being viewed as a digital archive rather than a vibrant platform for new and exciting content.
Content Discovery and User Experience: Another critical aspect highlighted in the review is the user experience on iPlayer.
Viewers find it easier to access well-known BBC shows, often featured prominently on the service’s homepage.
In contrast, discovering lesser-known or newer content requires more effort, hinting at a need for a more intuitive and engaging user interface.
This gap in content discovery is problematic in an era where streaming services thrive on the strength of their recommendation engines and user-friendly interfaces.
Shift in Viewing Habits: Ofcom’s review points out a significant shift in viewing habits, particularly among socio-economic groups D and E (those typically refer to individuals with lower incomes or status, often including manual workers, unemployed individuals, and retirees on state pensions).
These viewers, who make up a substantial part of the UK audience, are increasingly moving away from traditional broadcasting schedules (such as the linear channels on Freeview), favouring the on-demand access offered by streaming services.
This shift reflects a broader change in media consumption, where convenience, personalization, and quality of content are paramount.
BBC iPlayer’s challenge is to align itself with these evolving preferences, offering viewers not just convenience but also a compelling reason to choose iPlayer over other streaming options.
Competition from Global Streaming Services: The competitive landscape for streaming services has drastically changed since iPlayer’s inception.
With deep-pocketed global players offering a vast array of content, the BBC iPlayer finds itself competing not just in terms of content but also in terms of technology, user experience, and brand perception.
The allure of high-budget international shows and movies, coupled with the hyper-personalization of content on these platforms, makes it a formidable challenge for iPlayer to retain and grow its viewer base.
The Streaming Hours Numbers Game
According to Ofcom, a notable sentiment expressed by users was a feeling of restriction when using BBC iPlayer, attributed to its seemingly smaller content library.
Compared to platforms like Netflix, which are perceived as constantly adding new material, iPlayer appears to lag behind. This perception is important, because it influences user choices and preferences.
Netflix, in particular, is appreciated for its endless supply of content and effective personal recommendations, drawing viewers into a vast world of varied entertainment.
However, a closer look at the numbers presents a somewhat surprising picture, with Ofcom quoting research from Ampere Analysis.
While it’s true that BBC iPlayer’s library is smaller than Netflix’s, it’s by no means insubstantial.
In 2022, BBC iPlayer offered a total of 28,439 hours of content.
This figure, while dwarfed by Netflix’s 49,690 hours, is still significant, especially when compared to other Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) on-demand services.
For instance, Channel 4 provided 19,633 hours, while ITVX, which is now celebrating its first full year, had 11,337 hours of content.
Disney+ offered 17,328 hours, and Apple TV+, known for its select but high-quality originals, offered 888 hours.
The Road Ahead for iPlayer
To remain relevant and competitive, BBC iPlayer needs a strategic overhaul.
This involves repositioning iPlayer not just as a supplementary service to BBC television but as a standalone platform that offers unique, compelling content.
This might mean investing more in original digital-first content, revamping the user interface to enhance content discovery, and actively marketing iPlayer as a primary destination for quality entertainment.
For the casual viewer in the UK, these changes could mean a richer, more diverse viewing experience, aligning more closely with the global standard set by other leading streaming services.
BBC’s Hidden Hand in Streaming Success
Ironically, the BBC has been instrumental in the success of several shows on platforms like Netflix, albeit without receiving due credit.
Productions like Peaky Blinders and Killing Eve, which garnered global acclaim on streaming platforms, originated from the BBC.
This disconnect between the creation and recognition of content highlights a branding challenge.
The BBC must find ways to ensure its role in these successes is known and celebrated, bridging the gap between perception and reality of its content production prowess.
Representation and Accessibility
A key area where the BBC has received both praise and criticism is in its representation and portrayal of diverse groups.
While the broadcaster is lauded for its commitment to accessibility, with commendable efforts in subtitling and audio descriptions, it faces challenges in authentically representing the everyday lives of working-class audiences and diverse regions of the UK.
The perception of a ‘London-centric’ approach continues to be a sore point, calling for a more inclusive and representative content strategy that resonates across the UK’s diverse landscape.