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The iPlayer gets about ten million download requests a day. It’s massive and clearly doing something right. Big Issue editor Paul McNamee is a fan and says publishers can learn a thing or two from the BBC catch-up service.

Paul McNamee

Posted on: 26 September 2017

“It's a world you become reluctant to leave.”


The idea that we consume media differently is not a new saw. In fact, it can become tedious in its repetition. So, bear with me.

Examples of the new consumption are everywhere. Changes brought by Netflix and Amazon mean old viewing habits are going the way of the ark. Netflix is so influential, it’s now a verb. Likewise, Spotify.

Then there's the way we can collect shows on our Sky Plus box. That uneasy sensation when you get down below 10% and you know a series link is picking up old episodes of Location Location Location that will never be watched, feels as though it should have a cool Scandinavian name, which has no direct translation in English.

These are maturing products for very specific needs. There are adaptability lessons with them for publishers but the one I want to focus on that we can learn most from is the big daddy – the iPlayer. iPlayer has become so ubiquitous that I think it's easy to miss or simply take for granted its incredible value and sly ingenuity.

We need to leave aside the politicised debate about the BBC and the funding model. That is the rabbit hole that leads to fury. I happen to believe it's good value, and while moves have been made to decriminalise non-payment, issues still remain. That said, I've yet to hear a better funding model.

iPlayer has been with us, in different iterations, for the best part of a decade. It had a difficult birth, wrought by complaints about its cost, its necessity and the operating systems it could function on.

Yet by 2012, almost 40% of British adults had used it.

There are many reasons why it works. My focus is particular to the slightly lesser part that is iPlayer Radio, on phone and tablet.

It looks nice as a place to be. That's first. There are simple, seductive colours that when described don't sound seductive – black and bright magenta – but when you're in it, feels like a welcoming cocoon. It's a world you become reluctant to leave. The sense of being in this embrace grows as you build a favourites library. This is nothing particularly new, but the creators have managed to make it feel like an escape pod.

It's easy to use. Really easy. They've worked over the years to simplify it down. It feels both intuitive and mimics the basics of machinery. To go forward, you spin a wheel, to go backwards you draw back. That's borderline primal.

It has a simple sleep element. This encourages you to stay with it as you doze off, and it's there when you waken. They've gently encouraged a way to become part of the fabric of your day.

And this is what we as publishers can draw from. Frequently, as we're told we need to innovate to stay afloat, we can be taken down ever more complex routes. But simplicity is always the answer. iPlayer illustrates that in spades.

“Somebody understood the changes coming down the line for media consumption and got ahead of it.”

Content is everything

Most importantly, they show that content doesn't just matter, it's everything. If you don't have the content, no manner of bells and whistles will save you.

Make it the best it can be, say the thing you want to say, then find the best way to deliver that. iPlayer's deep reserves mean it's less of a supplier of images and audio clips and more of an ocean of everything, an open university where you can, for instance, dive into the well of the In Our Time library that might take you to political programming elsewhere or a book review or an episode of Wallander. It's not just, give ’em what they want. It's be fearless, challenge, give ’em what they want AND what they don't realise they need yet.

James Brown, of Loaded rather than of funk, once told me it was just plates. Whether the thing we took to readers was online or in print or in tiny bite size social media nuggets, it didn't matter. It was a different plate to serve the same meal. (I think that's what he meant. We were having lunch so he MIGHT just have been talking about plates).

And iPlayer is a different plate. Both simple and sophisticated but ultimately a means of delivering incredible content in ways that the users want to consume.

I think that is its great lesson. It sounds odd to compliment an organisation with huge resources for being risk taking and innovative, but that is what the BBC were. Somebody understood the changes coming down the line for media consumption and got ahead of it.

I come back to the key point – they also realised that it only works with great content. Media owners and publishers can sometimes be seduced into conflating innovation of delivery with change of content. Frequently, it's simply the plate the content is on. Your stuff may be great but if it's hard to access or design lets you down, it's this that needs changing. Get that right, work out how the market most likes to consume it and have faith in your core content and content values.

Would like to stay and chat but there's a number of Choral Evensong episodes I need to catch up on.

“If you don't have the content, no manner of bells and whistles will save you.”

About Paul McNamee
(Details last updated: 24 March 2017)

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. He is BSME Editor of the Year (Lifestyle Brand), 2016. He is currently chairman of PPA Scotland.

Twitter: @pauldmcnamee

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