The BBC has been accused of trying to strong-arm independent TV producers into extending the availability of their shows on the iPlayer from 30 days to one year without paying millions in additional licensing fees.
Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, this month gave the green light for the biggest expansion of the BBC iPlayer since its launch in 2007, to enable the corporation to fight back in the streaming war against Netflix and Amazon.
Independent TV producers argue that keeping their shows exclusively on iPlayer longer means that they are less valuable when they are eventually allowed to be sold on to other services, such as Netflix or other buyers, which they are currently allowed to do 18 months after they have aired on the BBC.
Recognising this financial issue, Ofcom has said the BBC needs to “adequately compensate” producers and that it may have to look to pay a higher price for programming.
However, Pact, the body representing the multi-billion-pound UK independent TV production industry, says it has been repeatedly contacted by members reporting that the BBC is trying to get them to sign off on using their shows for longer on the iPlayer without paying more.
Pact says the tactics started in April, when the BBC’s proposal to extend iPlayer viewing rights to a year were first made public, and has prompted it to take the step of warning its entire member base about the issue.
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“The BBC has consistently sought to strong-arm suppliers into giving the BBC these rights for no compensation and without a proper agreement,” said John McVay, Pact’s chief executive. “Pact has warned its members three times since April that the BBC has not yet reached an agreement with Pact for its ambitious plans.”
In addition, the BBC is also planning a huge expansion of the iPlayer to make programmes available on the service for up to five years in total.
Proposals to do this were not part of Ofcom’s assessment, which has agreed to allow only children’s content to be made available on the iPlayer exclusively for five years, as the corporation wants to keep shows for a further four years on a non-exclusive basis.
According to production company executives, the BBC is offering a pittance for deals offering a further two packages of streaming rights to programmes lasting two years each – after they have been exclusively on the iPlayer for a year – to keep shows on the service.
“The proposed payment structure for these periods is risible,” said one senior production industry executive. “Having shows effectively permanently available on the iPlayer will depress the price that anyone else will want to pay for it.”
The BBC has also been accused of trying to give BritBox, its joint venture subscription streaming service with ITV due to launch this year, an advantage by being first in line to pick up shows after they leave the iPlayer, instead of services such as Netflix.
Following the end of the one-year exclusivity window on iPlayer, the BBC is proposing that shows then only be allowed to be sold to a platform or broadcaster that “invests in and supports the UK creative industries” that also agrees to carry “prominent and approved” BBC branding and provide audience performance data. If producers want to wait to sell to anyone they like, they can do so only after 18 months, under the BBC plan.
This has been viewed by the production industry as attempting to eliminate Netflix as a bidder for shows once they are first allowed to be sold beyond the iPlayer.
Netflix prefers to brand shows it buys the rights to as its own in international markets – the BBC’s Bodyguard was known as a Netflix Original outside the UK – and is famously secretive about sharing any data on the popularity of shows on its platform.
One production industry source said: “You could have a situation where a programme is being broadcast on TV by the BBC for free, is on the iPlayer for free but also on BritBox where you would have to pay for it.”
Ofcom has said the extension of iPlayer rights to a year will have an “adverse impact” on the launch of BritBox, but ITV has dismissed those concerns and did not object to the BBC’s plans.
However, Ofcom has estimated that the increase in viewing of BBC iPlayer content will mean an audience reduction at Channel 4’s All4, ITV’s ITV Hub and Channel 5’s My5 and other online platforms. The loss of advertising revenue as a result is estimated at almost £15m next year, although Channel 4 says it will be higher, with Ofcom estimating that losses will grow in subsequent years.
“Both viewers and production companies win by making programmes available for longer on BBC iPlayer,” said a BBC spokesman. “This is about keeping up with viewer expectations and is long overdue. Audiences are choosing to consume content on demand and the value they receive from their licence fee should reflect that shift.
“We continue to have conversations with Pact and production companies to make this happen. Longer BBC iPlayer availability does not reduce the opportunities for them commercially, rather, success on the BBC leads to commercial success for independently produced programmes.”