Screen Saver

It’s a year since the BBC launched its iPlayer digital service. How did we ever live without it and will it prove to be the saviour of the BBC?

David Bainbridge, the BBC Future Media and Technology marketing head and the man behind the launch of the online catch-up service iPlayer, stays well out of the recent furore surrounding the broadcaster when he sits down to talk to The Drum last week in Manchester.

Bainbridge is here to talk about the BBC iPlayer’s first year – not ‘Sachsgate’, mercifully – but he appreciates the scrutiny that the BBC comes under given the unique way in which it is publicly funded.

“I think for a while people were questioning what the BBC was up to in the digital world, suggesting we’d fallen behind with all these 2.0 companies coming through,” he admits. “Where is the BBC in the digital space, we were being asked. Well, now we’re the third biggest website in the UK, iPlayer has won a clutch of awards both for marketing and technology, and I think all of that effort actually reflects very well on the BBC mother brands, and the BBC institution that some people think is a bit ‘Old Man in a Grey Suit’.

“I think [the BBC] is starting to change perceptions again, certainly in the technology space.”

Expectations

If perceptions are changing, it can be largely attributed to the iPlayer which, Bainbridge admits, has “shattered all of the BBC’s expectations” since its launch on Christmas Day last year.

“Within a month of launch we saw awareness of iPlayer up to 50% of the UK. ITV.com, after six months, was only at 40% national awareness, and Channel 4’s on demand service, after a year, was only about 35%. We were looking at about two million unique users across the first year of iPlayer’s existence; by the month of April we were up to about a million unique users a day. We completely outperformed the numbers that we set for the business.”

So, why has iPlayer proved popular with the UK public when other broadcasters have failed to match its resonance with similar products?

Simple Proposition

“The first thing we got right was having a very simple product proposition: you would now, if you had broadband at home, be able to catch up on the last seven days of BBC programmes through one portal online,” Bainbridge says. “Rather than for example ITV, which went out with a rather esoteric message talking about the ‘Freedom of entertainment at ITV.com’. We drove that simplicity of thinking into the product itself, right down to the name which just derived from what it was - the Ronseal approach. The iPlayer was very straightforward, you didn’t have to download anything. It wasn’t something you went to and thought, ‘Christ, that’s too complicated for me’ – it offered instant gratification.”

Unlike commercial rivals with advertisers to please, the BBC couldn’t target its iPlayer service at niche audiences – it had to go at the 60% of the UK population with broadband installed because of its Public Service Broadcaster remit. Its marketing campaign then, has knitted around a single universal message: ‘making the unmissable unmissable’, which has been intensively driven through its own media and a variety of other channels, not least outdoor. Bainbridge says the message has been ‘brutally consistent’, and he’s right, except for one occasion...

On 1 April this year, the BBC released a video showing penguins, in their natural habitat, and er... flying. The tongue-in-cheek April Fools’ day spoof seems innocent now, but Bainbridge insists it took a hard-sell within the corporation to get it off the ground.

“The interesting thing to bear in mind about that idea – especially considering what’s happened to the BBC in the last couple of weeks – is that it is rooted in BBC history, doing something around April Fool’s Day – we all remember the spaghetti trees spoof back in the sixties. Post-’Queengate’ and after the phone-in scandals of last year, an institution like the BBC has to be quite courageous to go and do something which potentially could mislead the British public again.

Tough Job

“It was a tough job to sell that in internally. But I think it’s fair to say you can see that reflected in what Mark Thompson has said in recent weeks - we’ve got to carry on pushing the envelope, carry on taking risks. Obviously it’s a fine line, but I think the judgement call was absolutely right with Penguins.”

And let’s face it, an ad featuring cuddly flying penguins - which clocked up 1.3m views on Youtube within 24 hours to promote the iPlayer service – hardly had the potential to offend quite like the considerably bluer Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross managed.

While Bainbridge won’t be there to shape the future of the iPlayer – he is about to take up a role as vice-chairman of London ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy – he is clear about what its future holds.

“Strategically, the concept going forward is to try and make the iPlayer universally accessible. So rather than it just being an online proposition as it started out as, it’s now available on Virgin Media, the Apple iPhone, a new Nokia smartphone, and the Nintendo Wii. It’s becoming a much more cross-platform product, available on mobile, TV and PC platforms. As a result of that we are seeing user numbers aggressively building.”

While accessing the iPlayer through mobile technology is an interesting niche development, the big challenge – evidenced in the service now appearing on the Virgin television platform and through the Wii console – is to take the technology from PC screens to TV sets.

“Trying to crack the last 10 yards – between delivering it from your PC to your main viewing point, to the living room – has always been the nirvana. We’ve seen various things come through like Apple TV and wirelessly pinging stuff from one room to another, but they all have technological constraints.

“The Wii is a classic example of a set top box that doesn’t just sit in the study or play room but sits in the main room as well. I think the Wii interestingly, has many of the same characteristics as television viewing, ie. it’s social, not a lone PS3-type gaming proposition.

“It’s about families playing along together. For us I think that’s important and the younger end of the marketplace, who might think, ‘Something from the BBC – is that necessary for us?’ might give it the benefit of the doubt if you can put it into the living room.”

Family Demographic

If the iPlayer is to become truly ubiquitous, it must navigate this challenge of engaging the whole family demographic and make it onto the TV sets of most households with the minimum of fuss. The answer might even be devised in Salford, when parts of the BBC’s future media and technology division are installed there in 2012.

For now though, the outgoing Bainbridge has a fresh set of challenges to concern himself with in the Capital.

David Bainbridge was a guest speaker at the Interactive Marketing Show 2008 in Manchester.

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