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Distribution policy consultation

Daniel Wilson

Head of UK Policy, BBC

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Today the BBC launches a public consultation on its new policy on distribution – or, in short, on how we get our services to audiences so they can enjoy them. It’s an important issue for us to gather feedback on and it’s a requirement of our Royal Charter & Agreement to do so.

The BBC was founded on a simple, democratic idea: that everybody should have access to the best programmes and services. As the BBC approaches its centenary, its universal public service mission remains unique.

Our starting point for distribution is therefore to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy convenient access to the BBC’s high-quality and distinctive services. But as the number of outlets (or ‘platforms’) on which audiences can get content proliferates, this is not our only consideration.

Indeed, the choices we make over how we distribute our programmes and services will be critical to our success in meeting the BBC’s mission.

Put simply the more effectively and efficiently we distribute services, the more valuable they are to people. The more convenient they are to find, the more they will be used and the better value they deliver for licence fee payers. The more robust and higher quality the delivery, the more audiences appreciate the content. The less services cost to distribute, the more the BBC can spend on British content for everyone to enjoy.

In this Charter period the key question for the BBC’s distribution is likely to be how to harness the internet to deliver enhanced services to audiences.

To remain successful in delivering its mission, the BBC will continue to primarily distribute via services. Services - such as BBC One, Radio 4 or BBC iPlayer – are selections of content which are greater than the sum of their parts. This is thanks to how they are put together – or curated – with the BBC guiding audiences to experience the full range of the BBC’s offer, rather than just the most prominent or most popular shows. It also means we can provide popular extra features, such as ‘live restart’ on BBC iPlayer which allows a user to rewind to the beginning of a programme that is currently being broadcast.

The BBC will also need to be able to access and use data to personalise content recommendations and make improvements in response to feedback from audiences. The BBC’s need for data of sufficient quality and completeness has recently been reinforced by the National Audit Office. Indeed, as the lifeblood of any modern media company, data will be indispensable if the BBC is to continue to inform, educate and entertain all audiences.

The BBC’s future approach to distribution builds on a strong tradition of innovation in which the BBC has helped the whole UK broadcasting industry. For example the early development of BBC iPlayer helped create the market for video on demand (VOD) which we now take for granted. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said: “The iPlayer really blazed the trail. That was long before Netflix and really got people used to this idea of on-demand viewing.”

At present over 80% of BBC iPlayer consumption (and growing) takes place on platforms controlled by third-parties such as pay TV operators and the manufacturers of televisions, radios and mobile devices. The UK’s dynamic and competitive platform market extends the reach and convenience of access to BBC services. BBC iPlayer alone is now available on over 10,000 types of device - more than any other VOD service in the UK.

This market-leading availability has been possible because the BBC has developed a highly efficient and cost-effective means of making its content widely available to audiences, via arrangements which are free and fair to third-party platforms. This standard BBC iPlayer product requires minimal work by the BBC or platforms to integrate consistently across a vast range of platforms. To date it has represented the gold-standard of UK VOD services, and the BBC continues to innovate to maintain this quality.

As set out in the policy, the BBC normally expects to distribute via a standard product – and this is the preference of most platforms. But the BBC will apply its policy on a case by case basis – and its approach has not stopped the BBC from working with platforms who offer new ways to access BBC content outside BBC iPlayer. Unlike other large VOD services, the BBC does not operate a ‘walled garden’. Instead, it works flexibly with platforms such as Now TV, BT TV and Virgin Media to make sure that a range of BBC programmes can easily be found within their search and content discovery menus.

In short, the relationship between the BBC and third-party platforms is usually a win/win.

At the same time, third-party platforms, as commercial players, cannot always share the same incentives as the BBC to enhance the overall public value delivered to audiences, or to invest in and showcase British content.

This can present a challenge for the BBC. It is therefore to the benefit of both platforms and the BBC that the BBC includes in the policy the conditions which the BBC judges to be both reasonable and necessary for platforms to meet in order for the BBC to fulfil its public mission. This is the focus of the policy – and also a requirement of the BBC Charter & Agreement.

In summary the seven conditions are as follows.

(a) Prominence – the placement of BBC content and services relative to those of other providers should be in line with audience needs and expectations

(b) Editorial Control – the BBC should retain editorial control of its content and its placement

(c) Branding & Attribution – users should be able to easily identify which content on a platform is provided by the BBC

(d) Quality – users should be able to enjoy a high quality experience of BBC content and services

(e) Data – the BBC should have access to data about the usage of its services

(f) Free Access – users should incur no incremental cost to access BBC content and services

(g) Value for Money – BBC distribution arrangements should maximise cost-effectiveness of distribution to the licence fee payer.

We will work with platforms to ensure they can comply with these conditions.

Before this policy is implemented there is now a chance for the public, stakeholders and Ofcom to comment on it. We will take feedback on board before publishing our final policy later in the year.

It’s important we get this right, for the BBC, for licence fee payers and for the broadcasting industry at large and we welcome your feedback.

Daniel Wilson is Head of UK Policy, BBC

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