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Interview: BBC iPlayer boss Daniel Danker

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iPlayer

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Ever since it went live on Christmas Day 2007, catch-up TV platform BBC iPlayer has proved a runaway success, not only in terms of its ever-increasing usage figures, but also in the way it has brought TV on-demand into the mainstream. Last month, iPlayer racked up a record 162 million requests for TV and radio programming across the 40 different platforms where it is available. Daniel Danker, the boss of iPlayer, talks to Digital Spy about the new iPlayer mobile apps, Sky's on-demand strategy and how it's time to standardise the way video on-demand services are delivered.

Danker, officially the BBC's general manger of programmes and on-demand, joined the corporation's Future Media & Technology team last September after 11 years at Microsoft (a fact evident in the way that he still refers to the BBC as a "company"). He has an air of calm when dealing with the media, able to bat away uncomfortable questions and stay on-message. When asked about morale at BBC Online after the recently-announced 360 job losses, Danker smoothly redirected attention to the new iPlayer mobile apps.

"We are here to talk about the apps, and if there is anything that drives up morale, it's shipping great products," he said, with a smile.

On February 10, Danker's team launched iPlayer apps for Apple's iPad and selected smartphones running Google Android 2.2 (with Flash 10.1 installed). The iPad app was downloaded 54,511 times in its first 24 hours, rocketing it to the top of the App Store chart. The service also attracted more than 1,000 user comments. Total iPlayer requests from iPads grew 111% between February 9 and February 10, while requests from Android devices grew 228%.

"That is exactly what you are looking to do, delight audiences with your products," said Danker. "There was pent-up demand for something like an iPad app and an Android app. But before launch, some people said, 'Why are you bothering to launch an app? Why don't you just keep the online version?' Well, this is why. We launched these and they jumped straight to the top of the App Store. It's been incredibly well received, usage on iPad has tripled. That's not an accident, that's not hype, that's people watching great BBC content in ways that they feel better about than before."

The app launch raised a few eyebrows as it bypassed the iPhone. After uttering the BBC mantra of "We go where our audience goes", Danker revealed that the iPhone snub was because the already available online version of iPlayer was deemed adequate, for now at least.

"If you go to BBC.co.uk on iPhone you get our web-based experience, and it's great, it's a really good experience," he said. "It's probably one of the best web experiences on mobile that I have seen. In that sense, it was just a matter of prioritisation. Obviously we are going to do it all [launch on all platforms], but first things first. It was just about where we would have the biggest impact and it was judged that was iPad and Android."

The iPlayer app was first revealed almost a year and a half ago, and Danker said that the delay in getting to launch stage was down to ensuring that the apps were right. He said that it takes time to bring iPlayer to mobile devices, as the service uses cutting-edge video and audio live streaming, stressing the technology to its limits.

"You really can't come out with a product that is not quite right yet. You have to come out with a product that delivers on the unbelievably high expectations of quality for this type of media," he said. "This is not short-form media, this is long-form media, half-hour or one-hour programmes. People expect a rich experience, especially for programmes like Human Planet and Madagascar, and we must deliver on that expectation. That's why it takes time."

Both mobile apps only permit programmes to be watched over WiFi networks, but Danker said that the BBC will introduce 3G downloads later in the year. Between December and January, there was a jump in mobile usage from 4% to 5%, and Danker is expecting a similar increase in February. However, he prefers to look at more long-term metrics to judge whether the apps have proved a success.

"I don't really focus on month-to-month jumps, I try not to predict it at such a level," he said. "It's also about looking at the relative growths. Mobile outpaced PC growth by 2 to 1 and tablet outpaced PC growth by 20 to 1. Connected TVs outpaced PC growth by 20 to 1 as well. Santa Claus bought a lot of TVs, he gave them to people and, crucially, they connected them to the web, which is different to what happened in the past. What that tells me is that people want choice - they want to access BBC iPlayer on PC, but also on TV and on mobile."

Danker said that iPlayer is no longer an "early adopter product" as it has been absorbed into the mainstream. Therefore, his team is asking why people who can use the service, aren't using the service. Danker feels that part of the problem is that iPlayer is not always available where people want it, or at the optimum quality due to weakness of some broadband connections.

"[Broadband speeds] will get better over time and things like BBC iPlayer are driving that. But it could also be that the PC is just not in the right room. There may be kids in there playing or whatever, so what I do want is bring iPlayer where people are," he said. "There is increasing choice on connected TVs, but also on mobile as well. This is part of audience demand for BBC programmes anywhere, anytime and on any screen. The iPad is a very personal place to watch television, I put this thing on my lap in bed and I watch. I am calling this the expansion of primetime, because the peak time to use iPlayer on iPad is 10.30pm. On weekends, it's 10.30pm and around 9am. That's a fascinating trend we are seeing."

Alongside mobile, Danker believes that connected TV platforms will become the place to access iPlayer. Virgin Media accounted for around 16% of iPlayer usage in January, racking up 25m requests. However, one connected TV platform that won't be offering iPlayer anytime soon is Sky. The 10m subscriber-strong satellite goliath has taken a significantly different tack to Virgin with its on-demand strategy, instead opting to use the Sky+ integrated PVR service for users to catch up on TV, always within the Sky environment. A recent BBC Trust report indicated that the BBC's on-demand content must always be made available within iPlayer and not syndicated, meaning the chances of it coming to Sky appear remote. Side-stepping the issue somewhat, Danker claimed that Sky customers are already accessing iPlayer on other devices, but he also defended iPlayer as a platform.

"My view on this is quite simple - the magic of BBC programming is not just limited to the experience. There is an editorial and discovery that the BBC is incredibly good at," he said. "It's about putting a context and experience around the media itself that is growing in importance. Years from now, people will think it is just obvious that there is a context, interactivity and curation about how we browse programmes."

Last May, iPlayer added links to social media sites Facebook and Twitter for users to actively share programmes. Danker said that this taps into a new curation of viewing around three areas - professionally-produced editorial selections, algorithmic search (an engine tracking user preferences and suggesting similar content), and community curation, in which family and friends share content. However, he also noted that iPlayer must soon give more visibility to the BBC's four channel brands - BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three and BBC Four.

"The challenges for us at iPlayer is to figure out how we give programme makers and channel controllers the ability to express themselves, online just as they do with linear," he said. "I think that is a conversation that is happening. iPlayer is a product that needs to express itself on the devices where it is available, but there may be different aspects for each channel demographic. A BBC Two audience, for example, may feel differently than a BBC Three audience. We must make sure that there is a degree of difference to how we serve the different channels. The curation aspect will evolve differently for different audiences, different devices, different channels."

The BBC Trust report also called for a reduction in the cost of providing bespoke versions of iPlayer on multiple platforms. That problem may potentially be eased by the new BBC-backed joint venture YouView, which aims to upgrade the Freeview and Freesat platforms to support VOD and web services. However, YouView has been delayed until 2012 amid reported disagreement over technical specifications. For Danker, this is all part of a broader need to standardise the way digital content is delivered on multiple devices.

"It's clearly time for platforms to standardise. It is both imperative for the BBC and other service providers to build multiple devices, but it's also unnecessary," said Danker. "I like to spend my team's time innovating and not porting. In the early days of the web, there was Netscape and Internet Explorer. There were big differences to the browsers as people were trying to work out how a browser worked. But that standardised, because the innovation was not in how people rendered, it came in what you offered on top. I would say that we have done enough experimentation now, the experimentation period is over. We're not alone in this - Netflix and Facebook are also talking about this, talking about standardising products for multiple devices. We are going to build in HTML and Flash and expect a degree of standardisation from the platforms."

The iPlayer app on iPad required bespoke development from the BBC as Apple does not support Flash. Danker, though, believes that this is the exception that proves the rule. He explained: "That goes back to the fact that we go where the audience goes. It is easily justifiable and the Trust agrees with this. It's about, when do we make expectations on this? There are loads and loads of people on the iPad so it's easily justifiable. But there needs to be a good reason for it."

December and January are typically bumper months for TV viewing, partially explaining the huge jumps in iPlayer requests. Regardless, iPlayer is rapidly becoming a bandwidth-hungry beast. BT will soon launch its controversial Content Connect platform, enabling broadband TV services to be more easily delivered. However, it has claimed that the platform will usher in a two-tier internet, in which content providers such as the BBC have to pay ISPs for streamlined access. Danker, though, believes that the web will find its own evolution.

"I have no line of sight on where the end point is [for iPlayer's growth]. I don't know, it's growing fast, isn't it? But the phrase for this one is 'Never bet against the web'," he said. "I think it's pretty safe to assume that Moore's law [tracking improvements in technology] will continue to do what Moore's law has been doing for many years. We are also looking at a world of increasing bandwidth. BBC iPlayer recommends a 2Mbps internet connection, which seems easy, but it's still not available in many places so more work needs to be done for people not in central London. That's important, because universal access is essential. We have to reach all audiences. But there are now 50Mbps, 100Mbps, 200Mbps services coming. The big question is, what next is going to stress these networks? It's a good problem to have."

At the time of interview, the BBC had not yet launched its new Partner Linking service, turning iPlayer into an aggregator for the on-demand platforms offered by ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, SeeSaw, S4C and MSN. Therefore, we were unable to discuss this with Danker.

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