BBC to bet big on VOD

Every webhead knows that making money online from TV content is challenging.

So why is BBC Worldwide prepping a paid-for video-on-demand service aimed at audiences outside the U.K.?

Last week managing director Luke Bradley-Jones announced that the Global iPlayer will bow as an iPad app in the U.S. next summer, with access to it gained by paying a monthly subscription.

An international rollout to other markets is then envisaged as BBC Worldwide uses its portfolio of foreign TV channels to give the Global iPlayer some genuine clout.

“The BBC already has its overseas channel infrastructure in place that it will use to promote the Global iPlayer,” said U.K. media commentator Steve Hewlett.

Service, described by the BBC as showcasing “best of British” content, including the revamped “Sherlock” and London-set soap “EastEnders,” aims to compete in the U.S. with Hulu and Netflix.

Inspiration for the Global iPlayer is the success of the U.K. iPlayer.

Launched three years ago as a free, seven-day catch-up service available only in the domestic market, the iPlayer leaves all rivals gasping to, well, catch up.

In October the U.K. iPlayer registered 139 million downloads. To put that into context, during the same period in the U.S. Hulu (backed by three broadcasters, rather than one) achieved 260 million downloads in a market where the population is five times the size of the U.K.’s.

“The BBC Global iPlayer has at least three important factors going for it,” said Hewlett. “It’s got the content, and the BBC knows from experience in the U.K. that the technology works and is easy to use.

“Thirdly, the BBC brand is one that resonates internationally. BBC Worldwide is hardly starting from scratch with the Global iPlayer.”

While all this is true, turning the venture into a successful business is unlikely to be the proverbial no-brainer.

While the Hollywood guns are figuring out how to transform analog dollars into something other than digital cents, what are the chances that the Global iPlayer will provide a significant revenue stream for BBC Worldwide?

“While there is a market for people who will pay to see British shows online, in any given region it is not likely to be a big market,” said Dan Cryan, head of broadband at analysts Screen Digest.

“But layering very small audiences in multi-platform markets where the competition is less well established could tot up to make a reasonable business provided it is a genuinely global initiative.”

Even if the initiative isn’t an instant cash bonanza for BBC Worldwide, it’s another feather in its digital cap and further promotes British content.

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