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iPlayer breaks records, but does this justify the licence fee?

ByJames Hanton

Feb 20, 2018

It has been a good year for BBC iPlayer.

The BBC’s on demand service saw its most popular year in 2017, with 272 million shows being streamed every month. iPlayer’s usage has grown eleven per cent compared to 2016, boosted by the introduction of several box sets such as Peter Kay’s Car Share which, for the first time, were available to binge watch as soon as the first episode had aired. Several old shows, such as Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekend, were also made available, complimented by new features such as an archive, increased user personalisation and ultra-high definition shows.

The result? More than 3.3 billion stream requests over the course of last year. Episodes from Blue Planet II, Doctor Foster and Taboo were the first, second and third most streamed shows respectively.

This is even more remarkable when you remember (how could you forget?) that 2017 was the first full year that needed iPlayer users to cough up for a TV licence, a ‘loophole’ that was closed in August 2016. Based on this evidence, the service certainly hasn’t been hurt by the move nor the login now required to access it, but does this mean that the licence fee should remain untouched?

Back in 2010, the Adam Smith Institute argued that the non-negotiable licence fee was unfair and should be replaced with a voluntary subscription. All the adorable animals and gruff Tom Hardy monologues do not justify the removal of viewer choice, the thinking goes. Since then, online competitors like Netflix and Amazon Prime have started offering a vast range of content for substantially less than it costs to have a TV licence. It is also argued that the licence fails to represent good value for money when the BBC’s content is not leaps and bounds ahead of advert-based channels such as ITV or Channel 4, in viewership or quality.

It is easy to look at iPlayer’s stats and pat your fellow executives on the back if you work for the BBC. They can retort by saying that the licence fee is what allowed all the new developments of the streaming service and its increasing popularity. Given the spike in TV license purchases after the new iPlayer rules were introduced, they may have a point.

Except the link between the licence fee and iPlayer flexing its digital muscles is far from certain. Of all the devices used to access iPlayer, televisions saw the biggest increase in accessing the service – used by those that should have a TV licence anyway and so are unaffected by the 2016 changes. iPlayer’s growth spurt is also a reflection of pre-existing viewer trends – Ofcom have found that broadcast TV viewing has fallen by a third among 16-24 year olds since 2010 and by twelve per cent across all age groups. The slow demise of traditional television is what triggered the controversial decision to remove BBC Three from the air. The BBC cannot claim that iPlayer’s success would not have happened without the fee-funded changes they made to the service, since on-demand viewership is skyrocketing anyway and has been for years now.

Online viewing is almost the norm now for how TV is enjoyed, especially so for students who in all likelihood do not own a traditional telly. This trend of the digital age has been taking hold in spite of iPlayer’s new requirements. Any suggestion that the licence fee is needed to maintain the popularity of the service is bordering on the fanciful.

Image: Edward Betts via Wikimedia Commons

By James Hanton

James is a former editor-in-chief having  been TV & Radio Editor before that, and has contributed over 100 articles to the newspaper. He won a Best Article Award in December 2016 for his feature about Universal Monsters in the film section, and also writes for Starburst Magazine UK and The National Student. James was part of The Student‘s review team for the 2017 & 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He can be reached at: jhantonwriter@gmail.com

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