BBC Plans Subscription-Only U.S. iPlayer On iPad

This is huge. The BBC will launch the long-awaited global version of its iPlayer TV catch-up service on a subscription-only basis, and initially only on iPad.

The service, carrying BBC shows like Doctor Who on-demand, will likely be very popular in the U.S., generating new income for the BBC back in Britain.

The significance of the move is clear – it means the BBC will operate a subscription worldwide media channel that, in time, could become one of its biggest. managing director Luke Bradley-Jones told the Digital TV Summit, according to Broadcast

“There’s a general acknowledgement in the world of VoD that there needs to be a hybrid business model – a combination of subscriptions, download to own and pay per view.

“I can see the value of that view and I believe it’s the way that the global iPlayer will go in the medium term.

“However I can announce here that we’re going to be adopting a pure paid subscription model for the global iPlayer for launch – in part to get audiences used to using the service, but more importantly so we can generate additional value from the service in terms of the user data that it gives us.

“We will also offer advertisers the chance to partner with us on the ‘free’ areas of the service.”

For the uninitiated, iPlayer is the BBC’s multi-platform on-demand service for serving the BBC’s own TV and radio shows from the last seven days. Launched three years ago, it’s now the UK’s most popular broadcaster-operated VOD service, clocking 139 million requests in October. That makes it more popular than Hulu, which clocked 260 million requests but which includes shows from at least three broadcasters and which operates in a market whose population is five times larger.

But, just as Hulu is available only in North America, the TV industry’s dependence on temporal and territorial windows means the license fee-funded, non-profit BBC can host shows on iPlayer only within the UK and only for a week, before rights revert to producers for exploitation.

Whilst building out its ad-funded and its BBC America and BBC World News channels in the States, the BBC’s commercial arm BBC Worldwide has been finding growing linear audiences for its shows like Torchwood and Top Gear.

That presents a clear VOD opportunity. BBC Worldwide has sold a la carte VOD shows for some time, but through third parties like iTunes Store, where it has over 1,000 episodes. BBCWW pulled £10 million in sales from such channels in 2008/09.

But it has wanted to offer those shows on-demand in that market under its own brand for a couple of years. The main challenge has been establishing what set of on-demand rights BBCWW can get to the linear shows it broadcasts, which are mainly licensed from the BBC; the company also wants to offer as VOD shows it airs on BBC America but which, in the UK, are commissioned by peers like Channel 4. In other words, should BBCWW launch a badged VOD destination, or just place VOD on individual show sites?

BBCWW appointed a global iPlayer launch director in September, after corporation director-general Mark Thompson set a 12-month deadline on the project’s delivery.

BBCWW would likely license the existing iPlayer technology, as well as shows, from the BBC. Although BBC iPlayer is available through a website to iPad users, an iPad app recently approved by the BBC Trust hasn’t yet launched at home.

Whenever we write about global iPlayer, we always read comments from people who would gladly pay money, both one-off and regularly, to view BBC shows outside the UK – and they’re not just expats. The upshot is, it could unlock a future for the BBC in the online age as a significant global online operator.