July 27, 2011 11:59 pm

BBC iPlayer app opens content to Continent

Fans of British television in continental Europe will be able to access a large library of UK content on-demand for the first time by the BBC’s new iPlayer application for Apple’s iPad.

The tablet app is available from Thursday in 11 European territories from BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm, as part of a year-long trial before making the iPlayer available more widely around the world.

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BBC Worldwide hopes to tap into “latent demand” by expatriates and anglophiles for television programmes ranging from Only Fools & Horses to Sherlock, to generate revenues for its parent and the TV industry at large.

“We think this should be about the best of the BBC and British creativity,” said Jana Bennett, president of worldwide networks at the group. “This is a pilot – we want to learn more about on-demand behaviour ... We think the next phase will be on iPhones and Apple TV.”

A small portion of the content is available free, with sponsorship from Visit Britain, the tourist body. After that, viewers will have to pay a subscription of €6.99 a month or €49.99 a year. That includes unlimited downloads of shows to store on the iPad for offline viewing, accessible as long as they remain a subscriber – a feature not yet available on the UK iPlayer app.

About 1,500 hours of television – including hit shows such as Top Gear and EastEnders – will be available at launch, with a further 100 hours added every month. For now, UK users will not be able to access the international iPlayer app.

While sharing the iPlayer brand, the domestic and international services differ in several ways. Where the local iPlayer is for catching up with shows broadcast in the past seven days, categorised according to the channel where they appeared, the international app draws on recent and archive content, from the BBC and beyond. Programmes will be grouped by genre – such as comedy, documentaries or drama – and “curated” by a dedicated editorial team.

Shows that originally aired on ITV or Channel 4 in the UK, such as Primeval, will appear on the BBC’s app thanks to deals with independent TV production companies, which will provide about a third of the iPlayer’s content. Availability of shows will vary by country due to the complex nature of rights licensing and expected audience demand.

Luke Bradley-Jones, managing director of BBC.com, said the broadcaster planned to make the iPlayer available globally on other devices but began with the iPad because it was a “great video device [and] we have a great relationship with Apple”.

BBC shows are already among the most popular on Apple’s iTunes download store. BBC Worldwide is betting that some users will spend more through a monthly subscription than they would by purchasing individual downloads through the iTunes store.

Mr Bradley-Jones admits that there are “trade-offs” in using Apple’s billing platform, with convenience and anti-piracy technology weighed against its 30 per cent commission on every subscription and limited amounts of data about users. However, the BBC would be able to correlate those Apple accounts which subscribe to their other iTunes purchasing activity.

“It’s an audience research pilot as well as a commercial pilot,” Mr Bradley-Jones said. “We are testing whether our hunch about on-demand is in the right order of magnitude before we go full-tilt into a multi-platform, multi-territory service.”

Nick Thomas, broadband and TV analyst at Informa, a consultancy, said that the new iPlayer app appeared to be the first of its kind to offer an international TV subscription service.

But he said that with an estimated 7.5m iPads sold in Europe this year – many of them in the UK – the initial target market was “niche”, omitting the larger opportunity of the US.

“The trend so far is that the vast majority of online viewing is catch-up viewing within 24 hours of transmission,” Mr Thomas said. The BBC’s experiment was nonetheless worthwhile, he added. “We are all still in the early days of understanding how these value chains work.”

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