BBC Worldwide is launching its global iPlayer service today, via an iPad app that will be made available in 11 countries in Western Europe. The US, Canada and Australia will follow later this year, as part of what is intended to be a one-year pilot.
The service will offer a limited amount of content for free, supported by pre-roll ads and sponsorship, but its core business model is subscription, with users paying €6.99 a month or €49.99 a year. The 11 launch countries are Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, The Republic of Ireland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
The global iPlayer app includes some features that are not in the UK version, including the ability to stream shows over 3G as well as Wi-Fi, and a downloading feature to store programmes on the iPad for offline viewing.
"We think we have a load of unmet demand for BBC and British content internationally," said BBC.com managing director Luke Bradley-Jones in an interview with Apps Blog.
"This is not a catch-up service: this is a video-on-demand service. We will have content from the last month, but also the best from the catalogue stretching back 50 to 60 years."
Users will be able to search for specific shows or browse genres including comedy and drama, but BBC Worldwide has also hired a team of editors to curate the international iPlayer.
Their focus will be on pulling together themed collections around specific shows or special events. An example of the former is Doctor Who, which is getting separate collections of episodes based on individual Doctors - The Tennant Years, The Ecclestone Years and so on - as well as one focused purely on episodes featuring the Daleks.
"There is at least 1,500 hours of content there from day one, and it will be growing by at least 100 hours a month going forward," said Mark Smith, launch director, global iPlayer at BBC Worldwide.
"Most audiences know the big shows like Top Gear or Doctor Who, but maybe not so much about other shows, so we have been working hard on how we surface that content."
At launch, the 11 countries will be seeing the same iPlayer homepage and collections, but over time, there will be scope for the global iPlayer team to flag up different content based on local demand.
"What we're trying to test in the pilot is the ability to drive exploration and discovery through a programming approach rather than an algorithm-based approach," said Bradley-Jones. "We're not trying to compete against a Netflix or a Hulu. This has to be tailored and hand-crafted, so we can create a tone of voice."
BBC Worldwide sees the offline viewing and 3G streaming features as key selling points for the global iPlayer service, with Bradley-Jones hoping they will widen it beyond an app that is simply used within the home on a Wi-Fi network.
According to Smith, the development team worked closely with Apple on the offline feature. "When we were doing our user testing, the use case was picking six shows before going on a long journey, and leaving them to download to the iPad overnight," he said.
"The way the device works, though, is it hibernates and stops you from doing that: you wake up the next morning and only half a show has downloaded. We have managed to override that functionality, and Apple are comfortable with us doing that."
Smith stressed that users will be warned about the likely battery consumption of doing this, though: they would be best advised to leave their iPad plugged in overnight in these cases.
Why focus on iPad? BBC Worldwide is not subject to the same requirements to support a range of devices as the BBC in the UK, so for global iPlayer, this was a purely commercial decision.
"We hope that this service becomes multi-device, multi-platform and multi-territory over time, but as a premium-but-niche service, we did not want to go in with both feet from day one," said Bradley-Jones.
"We're spending the next year in a pilot-type phase focusing on one device, to make a clean and very compelling experience. We have a great relationship with Apple in terms of the promotional commitments they'll give us too."
Apple's iPad currently takes the lion's share of the tablet market, which was also a key factor in BBC Worldwide's decision. However, if Android tablets become more popular during the year-long pilot period, Bradley-Jones expects to port the global iPlayer app across then. For now, the global iPlayer will not be available as a desktop web service.
At launch, 60% of the global iPlayer content has been produced and commissioned by the BBC, while 30% has been commissioned by the BBC but produced by independents. The other 10% is entirely non-BBC content, including ITV's Primeval, and Channel 4's The Naked Chef and Misfits.
"We see this as a best-of-British proposition," said Bradley-Jones. "If we get this right, it's a very exciting opportunity to provide a window onto our world: the cultural and entertainment space in Britain. To do that well, it can't be just BBC content. We really hope it will be a much broader church."
How will the global iPlayer's content fit in with windows for broadcast and DVD? BBC content will generally transmit first on terrestrial channels in the 11 countries, before appearing on the iPlayer.
Once shows are added, they will generally stay available for the long-term, although "a handful of top brands" will receive different treatment to take into account DVD releases or specific terrestrial scheduling initiatives.
Bradley-Jones said that the cost of Hulu and Netflix subscriptions was one of the factors in deciding how much to charge for the global iPlayer - which hints that when it does launch in the US, it will be around the $7.99 mark.
Users of the iPlayer app in the UK may wonder when or whether the download and 3G streaming features will make their way into that.
The two apps are being developed by different divisions of the BBC, so Bradley-Jones and Smith preferred not to speak on behalf of the UK iPlayer app's team, but Smith did point to the advantage of being only on one device as one reason why the global iPlayer is getting these features first.
The other obvious question to ask concerns the US, where fans of BBC shows will have to wait a little longer to get the global iPlayer app. Why?
"The rights picture for the US is a little bit more complicated," said Bradley-Jones. "The nature of the agreements with our rights partners are different, and the windows across our existing business are older than they are in Europe. Form our side, we have to jump through a few more of those commercial and legal hoops. We could have launched in the US with a product this week, but there would have been a few too many missing parts."
When it does go live in the US, the global iPlayer will sit alongside BBC Worldwide's existing distribution agreements with iTunes and Netflix, among others, rather than replacing them.