BBC Trust Blocks Open iPlayer Plan; EC Rules Made Proposal ‘Too Complex’

The BBC is being forbidden from sharing iPlayer with commercial broadcast counterparts in the way it wanted.

In a September 29 proposal that wasn’t made public, Auntie’s executive said it wanted to create a company – separate from both the BBC and BBC Worldwide – to license the VOD service to public sector TV peers, including Worldwide.

But the BBC Trust announced it’s blocking the proposal on Tuesday. It’s still not making public the executive’s original proposal, due to “commercial confidentiality”, and its own description of the proposal doesn’t fully explain exactly what was on the table, though it did include…

Commercial licensing: The open iPlayer would have “establish(ed) a new commercial service”, licensing iPlayer to broadcast “customers” … “this was projected to deliver a modest profit back to the BBC, in line with the criteria for commercial activities”.

‘Federation’: Forming a group of UK PSBs. Commercial channels’ VOD listings would have been displayed through search from BBC’s iPlayer and through a newly-created VOD listings site.

But: “We concluded that the open iPlayer plans in their proposed form, combining both commercial and public service elements, were too complicated. We were not convinced that there was enough potential value to licence fee payers in the public service part of the proposal, and we have therefore rejected the BBC executive’s proposals for an open iPlayer federation.

“The combination of commercial and public service activities was too complex, and the inter-weaving of public service elements prevented consideration of the commercial suggestions as a standalone plan.”

Too complex“? That’s ridiculous. Whilst the creation of a new company to manage the proposal may seem unnecessary (at least, without having sight of the actual proposal), the ruling is yet another instance of the BBC Trust containing the BBC’s online ambition – this time, an ambition that had sought to help cash-strapped fellow public broadcasters…

If anything, the trust could have blocked the proposal on its wish to create a new entity that would license iPlayer commercially, rather than complexity. But BBC Trustee Diane Coyle told a journalists’ conference call: “European state aid means the BBC can’t give iPlayer away for free, so there has to be a cost.” The trust therefore had to assess the proposal as a commercial service application, performing its market impact and public value tests.

But the part of the proposal that wanted to link out to broadcasters’ own sites fell under a public-service BBC remit. A fellow trustee said this division of the application is what proved too complex. And Coyle added: “Linking out to other sites (would be) much simpler than the proposal we had.” This decision, then, only rules out the creation of a separate UK VOD portal.

The BBC first proposed sharing iPlayer in December 2008 in its wide-ranging Digital Britain consultation submission, in which it proposed UK PSB partnerships that it said could save counterparts £120 million by 2014.

The trust says it supports the idea of sharing iPlayer, but says the Beeb “would need to find simpler ways of achieving this”

Rather than simply negotiate with the BBC’s online team earlier to arrive at such a simpler solution, the net effect may now be a further game of tennis as the executive considers whether to produce an alternative proposal and hit that back in to the trust’s court. Read our take here