2020 has been a significant year for the UK’s BVOD industry. It’s been a year in which the public service broadcasters (PSB) have faced the challenge of coronavirus, impacting both audience behaviour and content pipelines, as well as a year that has brought increased scrutiny over PSB standing in an increasingly digital, and global, media landscape.

On top of Netflix’s recent announcement about their plans to double its UK production budget to $1billion – Apple TV, Disney+, and Prime Video have all competed this year for the eyeballs of a locked-down UK. In an ever more crowded market, it is increasingly important for the PSBs to take stock and consider how best to excite, engage and grow their online audiences. 

In our last mailer of 2020, we take a look at how each of the PSB’s VOD services have fared. And consider the challenges and opportunities they are likely to face in 2021 and beyond through a renewed focus on their individual BVOD offerings.   

BBC iPlayer – at the heart of the new Director General’s vision for the BBC 

Over the course of 2020, iPlayer experienced a significant increase in usage thanks to  programmes like Normal People and the latest series of Killing Eve. The first 7 weeks of lockdown 1.0 saw over a billion iPlayer requests, 60% higher than the same period in 2019. Following this success, iPlayer set a new record for their biggest month ever in May, with around 570m programmes requested.

Further to  this incredible performance, the new Director General Tim Davie has reiterated the fact that, in order to compete with the global SVOD giants, the BBC must shift emphasis away from linear and ‘introduce a hybrid iPlayer/channel commissioning model’. Just last week news broke that the BBC will do away with channel controllers for BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four, and move towards a genre controlled commissioning process, in a hope to both reduce cost and place iPlayer at the heart of BBC’s overall offer. 

These plans coincide with Davie’s proposals to cut the corporation’s output by 20% taking a ‘less is more’ approach to content – cutting back on the number of podcasts, and dialling back specific focus on the 16-34 demographic in favour of doubling down on successful offerings and quality content that appeals to all ages. “Youngs remain a priority but [there is] a broader challenge,” added Davie. “The BBC shouldn’t just desperately try to grab young audiences as opposed to doing brilliant landmark shows like Blue Planet, which has a massive youth audience with a 90-year-old presenter”.

ITV Hub – realignment to build off a record-breaking 2020

In March, ITV Hub announced it had achieved an increase in both monthly reach and year-on-year consumption hours, up by 40% and 82% respectively. On top of this, subscription funded ITV Hub plus also saw user growth of 80% compared with the same period in 2019.

It too had an exceptional performance during the first lockdown, and beyond. Across the year, the broadcaster produced three of the top five most-watched drama launches, including Quiz, Van der Valk and Des, the latter of which broke ITV’s record of biggest drama launch with 10.9 million linear viewers.

Come March 2021, ITV has announced it will be entering a “new era” in which its commissioning decisions “will no longer be made solely through the prism of serving a linear schedule”. A dedicated On-Demand unit will sit alongside a traditional Broadcast counterpart in a bid to grow reach and revenue through “attracting younger and more targeted audiences”.

All 4 – H2 successes and a transformation to prioritise digital growth

All 4 has ended 2020 impressively, with viewing up by 27% year-on-year  to more than 1bn views. The service is projected to account for 20% of Channel 4’s annual income, up from 17% (£163m) in 2019. When Channel 4 was forced to cut its programming budget by £150m, cut other costs by £95m and furlough 100 staff midway through the year, it seemed unlikely that they would end 2020 with a “significant” surplus to reinvest back into content, but they’ve managed to do just that. 

During the lockdown, views on All 4 grew by over 50%. “We’ve come through the biggest crisis in the history of TV advertising and emerged … with very impressive digital growth,” said Charles Gurassa, Channel 4 Chair. The launch of a ‘bubbled’ version of The Great British Bake Off was highlighted as a major influencing factor with 10.8m linear viewers – C4s biggest opening episode audience since 1985.

Last month Channel 4 set out its five year transformation plan to instill renewed focus on “the UK’s biggest streaming service”, and ‘the creation of a £30m fund to invest in formats with global potential’. According to the broadcaster, this will be achieved through prioritising digital growth over linear ratings, and putting viewers at the heart of decision-making. Channel 4 are hoping this renewed impetus will lead to doubling All 4’s viewing and increased revenue to account for 30% of total income by 2025. 

Despite this significant internal shift, Alex Mahon (Channel 4’s chief executive), recently said that her primary concern was the issue of prominence, and securing a place for Britain’s traditional broadcasters in the modern media world. Citing the need for greater collaboration between the UK’s traditional television channels to secure the future of British television, she observed that the PSBs “have common enemies in much bigger global companies”.

PSB chiefs collaborate to take on SVOD on issue of prominence

Of all the strategies in place for the UK’s BVOD services to keep pace with the streaming giants, the issue of prominence is perhaps the most important. The BBC have long enjoyed being the predominant channels across every medium in the UK. But with the customisation of apps on smart devices, voice control and SVOD service shortcuts on remote controls, the BBC and other PSBs can no longer guarantee this front-and-centre position, as prominence is increasingly decided by the content carriers, or indeed by the user.

To combat this, last month PSB chiefs demanded the Government legislate a ‘must carry’ rule for VOD players – ensuring PSB platforms are carried on “all major content distribution platforms and that they get fair value from their content on those platforms”. This would require all platforms to carry the BVOD services, a step beyond Ofcom’s 2019 recommendation of simply handing them prominence when they are carried.

Ofcom responded last month and seemed to back up the calls for more stringent legislation. They point to similar legislation shake-ups around the world to adapt the rules for the new streaming era, most notably in Canada and Germany. Ofcom’s chief executive, Dame Melanie Dawes said, “for everything we have gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there is an urgent need to reform the rules and build a stronger system of public service media that can flourish in the digital age”.

The UK Broadcasters-SVOD – can Britbox build on international success domestically?

In a strategic attempt to maintain their position,  BBC and ITV came together to launch UK BritBox in November 2019 after a year’s roll-out to international markets. Now also featuring content from both Channels 4 and 5, the UK broadcasters hope that this will not impact the way their BVOD services operate, but rather, will consolidate a home for much loved PSB content.

One specific ambition for Britbox is to appeal to ‘Baby Boomers’, with the platform frequently emphasising the need to target the over 45s. As a result of this targeting, MD Will Harrison said that he was “very happy” with how the service had performed since its roll-out, with further aims to replicate the Britbox success seen in the US by showcasing boxsets of British classics and newer ITV dramas.

To help with this, in the UK at least, original shows made exclusively for BritBox could be the fuel that propels the service even further. BritBox are reportedly planning to release 6 new originals a year to keep people subscribed, including the highly anticipated recent revival of Spitting Image, which resulted in a ten-fold increase in the number of new subscribers to the platform in the run-up to the premiere at the beginning of October.

With all of that in mind, 2021 looks to be another fascinating year for the broadcaster VOD market. With the short and long term effects of 2020 set to continue well into the new year, as well as continued SVOD activity and new launches, the broadcasters will need to stay at the top of their strategic and creative game to survive and thrive. 

At MTM, we wish you all a Merry Christmas and look forward to seeing how this space continues to evolve in 2021, through our conversations with industry experts, trusted clients, and through our syndicated TV tracker ScreenThink.