Why Broadcaster Players are key to our hybrid future

17 Sep 2013  |  Richard Marks 
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It's been suggested that separate broadcaster players such as 4OD and iPlayer may soon become surplus to requirements - that viewers will want 'one stop shops' for catch up and VOD. Research the Media's Richard Marks argues the case for a hybrid future, where broadcasters have not totally surrendered control over the means of their own distribution.

At MediaTel's Connected Consumer Event early this summer, there was some debate about the future of Broadcaster Players such as iPlayer and 4OD, with Decipher's Nigel Walley claiming that they've "had their day in the sun" [watch video].

It was argued that viewers were frustrated at having to go in and out of different players, each working in a slightly different way to get the content they wanted: the future lay in integration into Set Top Boxes and Connected TV EPGs. This implies that the online Players are just a phase the broadcasters are going through; a passing fashion.

Ironically, later at the same event, Justin Sampson, chief executive of BARB, detailed BARB's plans to measure broadcaster players. The first phase is the gathering of census level data from the players. In the second phase - for which suppliers are currently tendering - the plan is to use that census data in the panel itself.

This is a significant step forward - not only for measuring online viewing, but also because it will represent the first time that viewing data not generated by the panel itself is potentially incorporated into the currency. So the Rubicon is being crossed - a significant step towards a hybrid measurement future.

At a BARB event last week, Sampson claimed that this would be a global first in TV measurement. But is the Dovetail initiative a waste of time if broadcaster players are about to go the way of furbies and the hula hoop?

Well, even if the online players were just a phase, BARB developing the ability to incorporate 'big data' to measure the long tail of services would still remain a priority. Dovetail would remain an essential development, not just in measuring the 'now' but in reflecting an increasingly connected future in which many other forms of server and IP data will play an essential role.

As Sampson put it last week, quoting the hockey player Wayne Gretzky, BARB is not skating to where the puck is, but where it is going to be.

However, I do not for one minute believe that broadcaster players have had their day - quite the opposite.

In a hybrid viewing world, having their own player helps the channels maintain their status as content brands in their own right, linking their content back to their brand. This is particularly vital for the BBC if they are to show they are spending the license fee wisely. For content watched via a player you need to know who made the content and click on a channel logo to access it.

So as ITV ups its game in drama, there is less chance of Broadchurch viewers assuming it was made by the BBC. I remember that in the 80s a recall study showed that a significant proportion of viewers to Brideshead Revisited thought it had been made by the BBC, despite having sat through over thirty ad breaks whilst watching it.

Furthermore having a separate player allows broadcasters to 'own the relationship' with viewers and develop that relationship to grow loyalty and viewing - Viewer Relationship Management. Channel 4 has claimed that it is looking not at audiences, but at building individual relationships with viewers. 4OD and the resulting database of millions of viewers is an incredibly powerful tool in that strategy.

Meanwhile, so long as broadcasters have their own player, they have a stake in their own future. Last month Ray Snoddy reported on the struggle between CBS and Time Warner Cable in the States over carriage and online rights which resulted in a blackout of CBS.

Since then the boycott has ended in victory for CBS which has not only negotiated a much better carriage rate, but also retained control over its rights to distribute its content online, potentially in competition with TWC. CBS wanted - and got - total control of its digital footprint.

So long as they have an online player, broadcasters have not totally surrendered control over the means of their own distribution. In the unlikely event that ITV fall out with Sky, Virgin or Freeview tomorrow morning, the vast majority of the country could still, with a little more effort and additional servers at ITV, watch Coronation Street tomorrow night.

I concede that watching TV on your PC or laptop may well be a declining activity, but it is migrating to tablets, Connected TVs and, for certain genres, smartphones, where the basic player concept remains.

Meanwhile, as the means of delivery for TV becomes increasingly irrelevant to the viewer - so long as it gets to the screen in front of them - the gap between an advertiser's pricing of content in players and 'broadcast' will narrow.

Finally, there is the inconvenience argument, that viewers are somehow in revolt at having to use a number of different players. The way in which those players organise and serve content will converge, much as EPG's have, but is it really that much of an inconvenience to ask people to click on a BBC logo to get Top Gear or on a Channel 5 one to get Big Brother? After all most people will happily wander around a shopping mall or high street between different fashion and tech brand outlets without complaining that they should all be in the same store.

However it may be that the concept of the 'app' specifically is a passing trend. In a blog on the BBC website Roux Joubert talks about having to maintain iPlayer across 650 connected TV platforms. Standardisation of player delivery is the way forward rather than dozens of iterations of apps.

So for me, broadcaster players will continue to thrive and coexist with other forms of delivery, via cable satellite and OTT services like Netflix. The future is not a case of either/or. As BARB's strategy is acknowledging, the future is hybrid.

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