ABC investigating international iView service, future local offerings

ABC says BBC iPlayer international launch is an 'interesting development', but not committing to anything

ABC iView

When the BBC announced an international iPlayer Web and iPad application, the possibility of an internationally available ABC iView video-on-demand service looked more promising. Arul Baskaran, multiplatform controller for the ABC, told PC World Australia that the BBC's moves were an "interesting development", but the ABC wouldn't be following suit immediately: "It's new, and it isn't exactly proven what model works — whether it's the subscription one, or whether it's advertising. It's something that all the commercial [networks] are trying to work out."

According to Baskaran, the iView service within Australia will always remain free and will evolve to continue to meet the demands of consumers. "Within the UK, iPlayer is free — it's a public service offering — and that's the proposition that iView presents in Australia. It's an important and effective way of reaching our audience as a public broadcaster.

"We're offering more choice in catch-up, largely for that fourteen-day window after transmission, and that maximises the public service value of the content… the free iView offering will remain free."

When discussing the possible sale of an iView-like service outside Australia, matters become more complicated. "With iPlayer [outside the UK], the commercial proposition is run by BBC Worldwide. The opportunity for iView [outside Australia] is more for ABC Commercial, and our colleagues in the commercial division continue to evaluate what those possibilities are."

ABC Commercial's general manager of digital business development, Robert Hutchinson, said that several major issues needed to be overcome for international iView access to become a possibility. The main issue is potential lost revenue and territorial restrictions: "We have looked at offering commercialised video services both domestically and internationally. Internationally, we represent a large portion of the ABC catalogue for broadcast sales.

"These deals are substantially larger than a direct-to-consumer international video service could earn in revenues. More importantly, many broadcasters require exclusivity for their territory, including digital platforms — we wouldn't be able to offer a commercialised video service in the territories where our content is most popular."

ABC iView's catalogue largely relies on internationally sourced content, which presents another impediment: "Much of the content on iView is acquired from international distributors who have other deals in other territories. That content would not be available to us. We would only be able to offer ABC produced/co-produced content, which would mean that there was substantially less content available in an international offering."

When the topic of possible payment methods for an international iView service was raised, Hutchinson said several options were theoretically available. "Our experience in licensing our content to other organisations' video platforms, is that the user-pays model delivers more revenue and the advertising-supported model delivers more viewers. Both models, however, can deliver substantial royalties back to content owners over time." The ABC distributes its locally produced content to platforms including Apple iTunes, Fairfax Digital,Yahoo!7, and UK-based BT Vision.

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ABC iView

ABC iView already offers users the chance to purchase content through links to the online ABC Shop, but ABC Commercial is "looking at various options" including possibly streaming purchased video directly to viewers. Hutchinson also says it is possible that the ABC will offer its back catalogue of video on a user-pays basis.

The ABC's Arul Baskaran also talked to PC World Australia about possible future directions for iView locally. A high definition option for iView is under consideration, as is the possibility for storing programs for longer-term access. "It's [about] finding a compromise between quality and bandwidth. We will be looking at moving to adaptive bit-rate streaming — that's certainly on the roadmap. And storage is certainly a part of it — we have to manage storage and bandwidth quite carefully, especially as iView grows more popular. We're looking at 60 to 70 percent growth year on year."

Baskaran believes that the two-week viewing window does have its advantages, and that iView users aren't too disadvantaged by the restrictions. At the end of most programs' two weeks on iView, an increase in user interest is recorded: "Keeping it fresh we find works much better. There's already a depth there, there's about 200 hours of programming at any one point — around 300 to 400 shows. [With] programs that are going to expire soon, we find that scarcity refocuses people on those programs."

Availability across multiple platforms is a major avenue of investigation, including for the Apple iPhone and Android smartphone platform: "With iView, we're more focused on reaching not only the iPad, but a whole range of platforms. We started out on the browser, then the Sony PlayStation, then BRAVIA, and we're working with all the leading manufacturers' set top boxes, tablets, and phones down the road.

"The work we did on the iPad app gives us the bones of an iPhone app — we're just working on some of the technical challenges with streaming across 3G. We recognise that people use these devices not only when they're at home or the office — making it truly mobile is something that we think would be valuable.

"It's something that would have to balance with making sure that people don't get hit with astronomical data charges, so building that into the interface is something we're looking at."

The possibility of an ABC iView app integrated with Facebook, Twitter or other social networking services is a distinct possibility: "We added a watch list feature to the iPad app which has proved really popular, that gives you a notification when a new episode is added to iView that you might like.

"That's something we like — the idea of how we can tap into what your friends might like. We want to leverage your social network and what people you know are watching — if two people you know like something it shows up, if eight people like something it gets added to your watch list."