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Tracey Follows 

Sky plays smart with BBC content partnership

Sky plays smart with BBC content partnership

The groundbreaking deal could usher in an age of personalised public service broadcasting, writes Tracey Follows - and with it perhaps save the TV licence

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which we communicate than by the content of the communication” said Marshall McLuhan, who was as usual, right.

Over the last week, many of us have been focused on content, watching the launch of BritBox with interest and tentatively dipping a toe into Apple TV+ via The Morning Show.

But the most interesting innovation has been not one of content but one of context and connectivity - the announcement of a technology partnership between Sky and the BBC.

On Monday, Sky and BBC said that would mean the BBC iPlayer and connected red button service will now be available on Sky Q, Sky’s next generation TV platform. As they made clear, Sky viewers have been able to enjoy BBC content for a while via Sky’s catch-up service but now Sky customers will be able to watch BBC programmes via the BBC iPlayer app too.

This makes complete sense. As a Sky viewer I already access Netflix content through the Sky Q platform, which saves me having to come out of Sky into separate apps, and log in via the Netflix homepage. If you’re a bit more organised than me you can also pay for Netflix through your Sky Q subscription and not direct to Netflix.

All in all, one can see how Sky is streets ahead of its competition in aggregating and curating the over-the-top platforms, so that it becomes the platform of platforms - the most convenient and habitual billing platform for all one’s TV content needs.

It remains to be seen whether out of home behaviour will favour the Sky Go app or the individual Netflix and iPlayer apps but that’s not really the most striking implication of this innovation announcement.

What is groundbreaking is the idea that the BBC and Sky are said to be, according to the press release, in ‘early stage exploration to use ProSmart, powered by Adsmart, Sky’s targeting technology to serve up personalised promotional content to BBC viewers’.

Note the subtle shift in language: from ‘audiences’ to 'viewers’. Traditionally, the BBC had audiences, macro groups who tune into educational or entertainment programming which was ranged across BBC ‘channels' acting as signposts for different genres of programming or making distinct the content’s appeal to certain types of audience.

Now what we are talking about is individual viewers, not groups or audiences. And this signals a bigger shift for the BBC than it is even for Sky:

“It’s a hugely significant partnership for both Sky UK and BBC, with implications for the personalisation of content," consultant Alex DeGroote observes. "And validates the commercial and technological qualities of Sky, which is thriving under Comcast."

It is perhaps the start of what we might call ‘personalised public services’.

The BBC as a traditionally supply side organisation is transforming into a demand-driven offer, facilitated by Sky technology that allows for the targeting of viewers rather than macro audiences.

But more and more personalisation and targeting of BBC content then begs the question: what is the point of a universal licence fee? The TV licence is predicated on the aggregation of money in exchange for the aggregation of content - everyone pays something for what is available to all.

Once the BBC can target viewers with more personalised promotional content (in the way that Adsmart allows Sky to highly target or personalise ads) it could become all too obvious that the licence is no longer delivering value.

The best definition of value is surely, ‘everything you want and nothing you don’t want’. Well, personalisation might just highlight exactly how much you are paying in order to produce content that is mostly of interest to other people.

Or, this could be the saviour of the TV licence.

If I pay a compulsory licence fee but can never find anything I like on the BBC or via iPlayer, a technology platform that can surface more of what interests me will be serving me more of what I want and less of what I don’t want.

It might show me all the content I am missing out on, but still paying for, because I can’t navigate the inhospitable iPlayer menu.

Imagine if younger viewers could have been served BBC3 promotional content when it first went online only. Youth audiences who had no way to discover it in the vastness of the internet when it was first taken off air, perhaps could have had promotions served to them in a more personalised manner, at scale.

Last month’s Ofcom Annual Report on the BBC found that less than half of 16- to 24-year-olds watched any BBC TV channels in an average week last year. Streaming services such as Netflix reached more young viewers each week than the iPlayer.

And with the negotiations between the BBC and the government on the charter to start at some point and probably intensify when they do, public service broadcasting has to prove it is sustainable for all different ages and types of viewer.

iPlayer expanding its reach and becoming more accessible via Sky might suggest a future move away from the licence fee model towards a subscription model.

But the ProSmart targeting technology could bolster the notion of a TV licence and strengthen the model in which everyone gets served more of the content they like, and therefore feels they are getting what they pay for.

One thing is certain. Sky is cementing itself as the platform of platforms as it embraces collaboration and drives co-opetition with its broadcasting frenemies to become the primary gateway for access to broadcasting content that can be personalised at scale: a smart move if in future it wants to be at the heart of the smart home.

Tracey Follows is the founder of futures consultancy Futuremade


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