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Ofcom hems in BBC iPlayer box-sets ahead of Public Interest Test

UK regulator Ofcom has presented a final set of interim directions to the BBC that will curtail its plans to offer extended runs of box-sets on the BBC iPlayer service. The instructions come ahead of the UK public broadcaster carrying out the Public Interest Test that Ofcom imposed in November.

Among other decisions, Ofcom has rejected a request by the BBC that it should be allowed to make a limited number of returning series available for beyond a 30-day ‘standard period’ it has defined as the norm. The regulator said that such a change would not be “consistent with the proportionate balance reached in our decision” and that it did not “consider any evidence has been provided that would alter our conclusion”.

In its direction, the watchdog cited BBC modelling that “suggests that new and archive series are likely to attract less incremental viewing than returning series” as a reason not to allow the pubcaster to extend the run of returning series.

Ofcom has accepted a submission by the BBC requesting that it be allowed to make series available on iPlayer for more than the 30-day limit set by the regulator, but only if a programme was available on the service for an extended period before November 2 or if the BBC had entered into an agreement prior to November 2 to commission a show on the basis that it would continue to be made available via iPlayer beyond the 30-day limit – a concession that covers about 46% of content that the BBC was planning to offer for an extended period.

The BBC may also continue to make shows available on iPlayer for more than 30 days if the programme is “of a type that, before 2 November 2018, was ordinarily made available on the BBC iPlayer for longer than the Standard Period”.

Ofcom has also permitted the BBC to make a limited number of new series available beyond the 30-day threshold for a period not to exceed a certain number of months. Neither the maximum number of series nor the time limit have been made public at this stage.

The BBC may also make a certain number of archive series – meaning series made before 2013 – available beyond the 30-day period.

Ofcom however rejected a request by the broadcaster to allow new and archive series be shown on iPlayer for a longer period than in Ofcom’s November direction on the grounds that this would be in line with current “market norms”.

“We consider that such market norms are not yet established, and that the UK VoD market is still evolving and different providers offer different terms for content availability,” said the regulator.

In November, Ofcom ruled that the BBC’s plans to extend the availability of box-sets on iPlayer, and other planned changes to the on-demand service, were “material” and required the BBC Board to undertake a public interest test, in a ruling that contradicted the pubcaster’s board’s own assessment of the impact of the proposed changes.

The BBC had wanted to offer a substantial number of box-sets of series, over and above those currently available on iPlayer, for an extended time period as part of a series of changes to make the service more attractive and useful to users.

Ofcom has expressed its concerns that the BBC’s iPlayer plans could result in a “crowding out of commercial activity” and has also called on the BBC to assess whether its proposals could restrict other players’ access to VOD content, such as a UK equivalent of the Britbox service available in the US and Canada, and ITV’s planned SVOD service.