BBC to Name Head of VOD Service, Treat It Like Fifth TV Channel

Danny Cohen - H 2013

Director of television Danny Cohen discusses possible on-demand offers, expected cost cuts and when broadband delivery of content may supersede broadcasting in the U.K.

LONDON – The BBC is planning to name a controller of its VOD service, the BBC iPlayer, to effectively establish it as a fifth network of the U.K. public broadcaster, director of television Danny Cohen said here Tuesday evening.

His comments came during a Royal Television Society event following a big vision speech last week, in which new BBC director general Tony Hall outlined his strategy and priorities.

Cohen, who previously ran flagship network BBC One and now oversees all TV output of the broadcaster except for news, on Tuesday discussed the implications of Hall's plans.

In his first major speech since taking charge of the BBC in April, Hall had pledged to enhance the iPlayer on-demand and catch-up service, which is available online and on TV platforms, and simplify management structures, among other things. Hall was appointed last fall, less than two weeks after George Entwistle abruptly resigned as director general after only 54 days amid the fallout from the growing Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal.

Cohen said he would create a controller post for the iPlayer for an executive who will "sit alongside" the heads of the BBC's four TV channels. He added that he expects to know more about the role by January, with the BBC planning to "begin to see the iPlayer as our fifth channel."

Asked about Hall's plans to offer original content and channels on the iPlayer, Cohen said "we'll do a combination of permanent online channels and pop-up online channels." Pop-up channels would be tied to big events, such as the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Glastonbury music festival, he explained. BBC's Radio 1 channel and arts could get a permanent channel on the iPlayer.

Original content on the iPlayer will come in the form of short-form content, mostly for younger audiences, among other things, Cohen said.

Hall said the need for original content on the iPlayer became apparent during a recent trip he made to Silicon Valley. Executives from such tech giants as Facebook and Google told him that the BBC had the best video player in the world. But to retain that position in the coming years was key, Cohen explained. "Part of the answer is partly how we curate it," he said.

The BBC's head of television was also questioned where the broadcaster would cut costs to reach a target of $160 million (£100 million) in annual savings mentioned by Hall. Cohen said the broadcast department and BBC News would be key targets for cuts, but added that he had no details to share yet.

Will broadband delivery of content supersede broadcast delivery in Britain any time soon? Cohen said he expects a hybrid model in the coming years, but "I think it will eventually." But he argued that would only happen in 10 years, maybe even more.

Asked about the state of U.K. TV dramas amid the popularity of Danish shows, such as The Bridge and Borgen, and U.S. hits, such as Breaking Bad, he said Britain has Sherlock, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and other hits.

Americans also often tell him that they find British drama great. Cohen argued that the debate about the health of drama in various countries seemed to be a case of the grass always seeming greener on the other side.

Asked about the ratings struggle of The Voice UK on BBC One on Saturdays, Cohen said the first two seasons both saw audience drops during the live stage of the singing competition. Still, the ratings have made it the BBC's biggest entertainment show launch since Strictly Come Dancing. Plus, the show attracts young audiences.

"It's bloody, bloody good for us," Cohen concluded. I have no particular concerns about The Voice."

Asked about commercial rival ITV, which has such hits as Downton Abbey, Broadchurch and The X Factor, Cohen said: "I think it's in fantastic shape." But he said that BBC One is also doing really well.

With both networks getting up to 10 million viewers for big shows despite a much smaller population in the U.K. than the U.S., the two broadcasters compare well to U.S. networks, he said. And he said the strength of both makes both more competitive. "It is definitely good for the BBC to have a strong ITV," Cohen argued.

The BBC TV boss was also quizzed about Tuesday morning's news that hit baking competition The Great British Bake Off would next season move from BBC Two to the flagship BBC One network. When shows get a certain audience size, they can get even more viewers on BBC One, Cohen explained. The same phenomenon happens when an Andy Murray tennis match moves from BBC Two to BBC One, he said.

"They tend in general to be bigger" in terms of audience reach when moving to BBC One, Cohen said. "Channels do still matter. I don't know why that is still the case. It is just a click of a button."

So, will Bake Off top its current 7 million or so viewers once it airs on BBC One? "I think it has a very good chance of doing that," Cohen said, citing the success of past moves to the flagship channel of such shows as The Apprentice and MasterChef.

Was BBC Two controller Janice Hadlow sad or mad about the show's move? "No channel controller likes it when that happens," Cohen said. "That's part of being a team player."

But he vowed not to dilute the show's voice and feel by moving it to the broader-based channel. "Our plan is not to change Bake Off at all," Cohen said.

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