BBC Overhauls VOD Service, Wants It to Showcase 'Best of British Creativity'

Tony Hall – P 2013
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Unveiling a new raft of original content and improved navigation for the iPlayer, director general Tony Hall says the BBC wants to develop new talent and new forms of story telling via the digital media player.

LONDON – The BBC on Tuesday unveiled its latest slate of original content for its VOD service and digital media player, iPlayer, and improvements to its navigation and program discovery functions as the service becomes an increasingly bigger focus for management.

Speaking at the U.K. public broadcaster's headquarters in central London, director general Tony Hall, who took over the BBC last April, said the popular VOD player is looking to move from offering TV online to online TV, from "something static like a jukebox" to something that is also creatively more exciting.

"We're bringing live to the vision" of the iPlayer, Hall said."What really matters to me are the creative opportunities" that the next stage of the iPlayer development opens up. He touted them as new opportunities for "Britain's great creative people."

His comments came as part of a presentation on new original content and new features and upgrades to the iPlayer, including improved search and recommendation functions, some mindful of Netflix's search capabilities, to make content discovery simpler. "It’s just a first step to re-inventing BBC iPlayer, the best online television service in the world,” Hall said.

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He emphasized "the creative challenge, which this is really enabling us to run with." He added: "This journey will never we move [into the future] creatively is completely new ground."

Among new iPlayer originals launching Tuesday are three drama shorts from up-and-coming writers that the BBC writers' room has been developing, Hall said. They are called Tag, My Jihad and Flea.

In addition, Frankie Boyle, Micky Flanagan, Stewart Lee and other comedians have been developing exclusive short-form iPlayer comedy content, which will roll out later in the year, the BBC announced. Among other original content on offer this year will be a program on sci fi fandom culture and a Tate Modern museum exhibition, through which U.K. DJ and actor Goldie will lead viewers.

Hall also said that the iPlayer will start hosting collections of content pieces by themes or in collaborations with arts and other institutions in Britain, which he said opens up new opportunities.

BBC iPlayer head Dan Taylor, meanwhile, said that 42 percent of users are coming to the iPlayer without a particular program in mind, meaning that improved visual search, with a focus on pictures, was a key focus in developing the new version of the VOD service. Search categories have also been fine-tuned to allow more granular searches.

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Saying the new iPlayer version offers the "best-ever playback quality," Taylor also said users will now be able to add show to a list of favorites without leaving playback mode. Plus, at the end of a viewed show, the iPlayer now starts lining up the show's next episode or similar suggestions rather than offering to replay the just-watched item.

One potentially controversial part of the new iPlayer experiences are personalization and improved recommendation and mobility capabilities, which executives said will require people to create a user name and password. Some observers have said that critics may raise privacy concerns about such logins, but BBC executives on Tuesday said they are necessary for people who want to  do such things as continue to watch a certain content item on a different platform or screen.

Victoria Jaye, head of programming for iPlayer, echoed Hall's vision Tuesday, saying that "we want iPlayer to be a celebration of the best of British creativity." She said the BBC wants it to develop and feature new talent and new forms of story telling and use it to try out new forms of collaborations with partners.

On Thursday, the BBC had confirmed plans to move youth network BBC Three online in fall 2015 amid the need for cost cuts. Hall said Tuesday that this decision "pushes the creative development of the iPlayer further to the fore."

The iPlayer has been a big success for the BBC, with Hall previously saying Silicon Valley players lauded it during a trip to the U.S. last year. BBC hit show Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson, helped the VOD service hit a record number of program requests in January – more than 315 million. That marked the first time it has passed the 300 million mark for a month.

Twitter: @georgszalai