For those of us brought up in an era of three TV channels and the test card, the iPlayer is a marvellous innovation. It provides high quality content for use on multiple platforms so that the consumer can choose where, when and how they watch and listen. It is a service of which the BBC can be justly proud. It is, however, as likely to sink the corporation as it is to be its saviour. This is because whereas a licence is required to watch live TV there is no need to buy a licence to watch the same programme on the iPlayer a day later. Perversely, the very service which is there to provide consumer choice could be the one that limits it.
There are many people who see the conundrum that the iPlayer poses as being the come-uppance that the BBC deserves. After all, so the argument goes, the BBC is the elephant in the room when it comes to creating the great content giveaway mindset. Just at a time when newspapers and other media are struggling to find business models to cope with the disruption caused by new electronic media channels the BBC, funded by the licence fee, continues to give away all its content for free. It is, of course, very hard to compete with a totally free model. But having done so much to create an uneven playing field, the BBC is now about to face its own nemesis. A whole generation has been born for whom paying for content is anathema (considering the many hurdles they’re seemingly happy to face in order to get their content free, then waiting a day to watch the BBC doesn’t seem much of a hardship.) And there’s now a constant stream of businesses (a term used here rather loosely) whose model is to give services away free, build a big following and then introduce charges. At which point, of course, the users simply migrate to the next “free” service. And so as the iPlayer becomes more successful it is merely encouraging a something for nothing society.
Another marvellous irony is that the BBC (whose journalists see their role as, inter alia, holding the powerful to account) is refusing to declare how many people are now declining to pay the licence fee, preferring instead to wait a day and watch programmes free on the internet. The corporation has resisted requests under the Freedom of Information act, declaring that such transparency may encourage people to break the law. Others may say that it is simply the fear that more people will realise that the licence fee may be approaching its sell-by date and that it is no longer appropriate in the modern, digital multi-platform and multi-stream world.
The disruptive technology of our digital era is causing everyone to rethink the role and relevance of their services. Behaviours and consumption habits are changing constantly, partly because of technological advances, opening up huge opportunities and challenges. One thing is for sure: organisations and institutions that don’t face these challenges head on will fail. Progress requires both success and failures – our banks should not be too big to fail and neither should our favourite aunts be shielded from the real world – and progress means adaptability and flexibility and a built-in resilience. Change needs to be encouraged by creating the environment in which it can occur naturally.
Maintaining the old models through regulations does not create progress. Lifestyle and behaviours have changed and all organisations must respond accordingly. Perhaps the BBC, and others, should recognise not so much the price of everything but the value of everything. Content should not be given away free. It’s neither a healthy nor a sustainable model. Neither, however, should there be a restrictive one-size-fits-all charge. As with much in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. And that requires a flexible and adaptable attitude towards change.