Tony Hall promises BBC iPlayer revolution by 2020, hints at embracing Netflix-style releases, AI and voice recognition

Sherlock 'The Lying Detective' on BBC iPlayer

BBC director general Tony Hall has outlined an ambitious scheme to secure the BBC iPlayer as one of the leading online TV services by 2020.

Soon after the corporation appointed a new chair of the BBC board in Sir David Clementi, Hall promised to staff that he wanted the organisation to "reinvent public broadcasting for a new generation".

At the centre of this was updates to the BBC iPlayer that would see it “make the leap from a catch-up service to a must-visit destination in its own right”.

The decade-old service plans to leverage technology to retain its top spot in the UK, harnessing the likes of user personalistion, AI and voice recognition to deliver select content, he claimed.

The BBC’s video-on-demand offering will also adapt to the changing viewing habits of younger audiences, by allowing iPlayer viewers to download whole series of dramas before they are broadcast on linear TV, capitalising on a trend among younger viewers to ‘binge watch’ series, a trait which defines its digital competitors.

Hall said: "Our goal, even in the face of rapid growth by our competitors, is for iPlayer to be the number one online TV service in the UK.”

To achieve this, Hall has set the challenge to double the number of people using the service each week from an estimated 10 million now to 20 million in 2020. This will require shifting existing viewers to online services (much like it did when it moved BBC Three online exclusively). In 2016, The iPlayer received an average of 243 million monthly requests.

Hall also told staff that the BBC must “do much more to help our audiences understand what’s happening in the world today” with “slow news” such as in-depth analysis to accompany breaking coverage.

The BBC is not the only broadcaster focused on having a strong VOD offering; Channel 4 has been making similar iterations to its online player All4 in recent years, as well as creating interactive ad formats aimed at keeping the broadcaster financially viable against the looming threat of Netflix and Amazon.

Netflix stole the rights to Charlie Brooker’s popular satire drama Black Mirror from Channel 4 in 2015, and unveiled a £100m BBC-style royal series The Crown last year, which has since won a number of accolades at the Golden Globes. Meanwhile Amazon spent a reported £160m for three series of The Grand Tour, fronted by the BBC’s former Top Gear team.

Hall's speech comes at the start of new Royal Charter period, which has forced the BBC to make a number of cost-cutting measures and reforms. Hall warned staff at the public broadcaster that there are additional cuts to come.

“We have already done a lot: cutting overheads to just 6% — better than most in the private sector... reducing layers in many areas... reducing divisions and boards... halving the number of senior managers.

“I know it’s been very tough and I really appreciate the way in which people have responded but we have plenty more to do.”

Additional reporting by media reporter Jessica Goodfellow

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