According to BBC boss Tony Hall, iPlayer needs to be reinvented with new technology such as voice recognition and artificial intelligence to stay ahead of “rapid growth by our competitors”.
He didn’t name them, but those competitors are Netflix and Amazon which have in a relatively short space of time, elbowed their way into the TV market. From Stranger Things and The Crown on Netflix to The Grand Tour and Transparent on Amazon Prime, online-only shows have become core components of what we watch.
But while both Netflix and Amazon have invested heavily in content, it was the quality and simplicity of their technology that provided the foundation of their success. iPlayer may have led the online TV revolution, but it has since fallen behind in features and usability.
Hall is obviously aware of this, but for all his ambition, there are a host of reasons why the BBC will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make iPlayer as good.
The first problem is data, which is vital in getting personalisation and recommendation right. Netflix has more users globally – upwards of 86 million and growing – whose viewing habits help refine its systems. Amazon has data from across its retail and other businesses that has already made it a leader in recommendations (it has also sold millions of Amazon Echos, which gives it a big lead in the voice recognition tech that the BBC wants to add to iPlayer).
But much of the time, the BBC doesn’t even know who is watching. Unlike with Netflix and Amazon, there is no required sign-in for iPlayer. The BBC is trying to persuade people to use a single sign-in system called BBC ID, which would let it personalise and recommend content across all its platforms. There are plans to make sign-in compulsory but no set time frame and doubts about whether it will be possible across all the platforms iPlayer needs to be on.
And then there are the technical challenges of making any radical changes to iPlayer. As a publicly funded, public-service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to be available as widely as possible. That means making sure iPlayer is compatible with services such as Sky, Virgin and YouView, plus smart TVs and many other devices.
Adding new features or even making the way video is delivered more efficient risks breaking earlier versions or making it incompatible with older devices and services.
And here, the BBC is a victim of its own success. Not only is it funded by the licence fee, but it has also become a cornerstone of British culture. That may make it a well-loved institution but it also means if iPlayer suddenly stops working on your two-year-old smart TV half way through Strictly Come Dancing, you’re going to be a lot more annoyed than if you have to switch over to your laptop to finish the latest episode of The OA on Netflix.
And not only does the BBC have extra hurdles to overcome, it also has less cash to do it.
Netflix’s research and development spending in 2015 was $650.8m (£530m), more than five times the £105m the BBC spent on development and its research department in 2015/2016. Amazon doesn’t break out its R&D, but as of the end of its 2015 financial year it had more than $620m in tax breaks, and said this was primarily what it spent on research.
Meanwhile the BBC is facing budget cuts amounting to more than £700m (some of which will be offset by increases in licence fee funding). It simply can’t match the cash the digital behemoths are willing to spend.
Yet there is one thing that gives the BBC an advantage over its digital-only competitors that might be more important.
While Netflix and Amazon have huge budgets to pay for shows – it is estimated they will spend a combined $9bn on content by 2020 – the BBC, through a combination of established relationships, long-running series and the fact it still broadcasts live to millions, retains an appeal to producers that is hard for the tech firms to match. It also still makes its own shows, and is for the most part pretty good at it.
That Netflix and Amazon are prepared to spend so much money on acquiring content underlines the fact that it’s what you watch, not how you watch it, that matters. And when it comes to what people want to watch, for the moment at least, the UK wants to watch a lot of what’s on iPlayer.
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