Post by Paul Grainge, University of Nottingham
This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Paul Grainge, Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.
Ever since the BBC launched its on-demand service, BBC iPlayer, on Christmas Day in 2007, short-form trailers have appeared across the BBC’s broadcast channels to promote the availability of iPlayer as a new way of accessing and engaging with BBC content. The distinctive iPlayer logo, pretty in pink, routinely appears in TV end credits as a reminder of program availability through catch-up and as a call to action. The “play” symbol invites audiences not only to watch shows they may have missed but also to download content, interact with educational guides, share recommendations and personalize their viewing through sign-in (the last of these reflecting the BBC’s desire, expressed by Director-General Tony Hall in 2015, to “reinvent public service broadcasting through data”).
As well as using end credits, the promotion of BBC iPlayer in the UK market has also taken place in between programs, a range of teasers (10 seconds), trailers (30-40 seconds) and full-blown brand stories (up to a minute long) appearing as interstitials in the BBC’s linear schedule. These always make me watch. Not simply because I’m a sucker for a well-crafted promo, but also because they reveal something of the way that the BBC has produced, and continues to develop, vernaculars around on-demand television.
This has become tied to questions of how the BBC communicates its role in a fast-changing media environment. Unquestionably, the BBC has been successful in creating brand awareness for iPlayer. This was evidenced by a YouGov poll in 2013 that named “BBC iPlayer” the UK’s number-one brand in terms of consumer perception, ahead of Samsung (2nd), John Lewis (3rd), BBC.co.uk (6th), YouTube (7th) and Marks & Spencer (8th). And yet, despite the ubiquity of the brand, it remains the case that iPlayer accounts for just 2-3% of all BBC audience viewing. For those responsible for iPlayer strategy at the BBC, this signals a head-scratching gap between brand awareness and actual use among mainstream audiences. While rebutting claims in 2015 that iPlayer’s audience had dipped for the first time, the Head of BBC iPlayer, Dan Taylor-Watt, nevertheless remarked in a May blog post that “the challenge for us is to get everyone using iPlayer—whether that’s to make the journey to work better, the holiday in the middle of no-where [sic] in the rain more enjoyable or just easily catch-up on what you’ve missed from the comfort of your sofa.”
It is the nature of the “challenge” that Taylor-Watt describes that interests me—specifically, how promotion has been used to get audiences to think of iPlayer as part of their daily habit. Since 2011, marketing campaigns for iPlayer have been informed by a “three beyond” strategy: “beyond PC, beyond catch-up, beyond the early-adopter.” This has been expressed in different ways, but is marked by a move away from techno-representations of iPlayer as a “portal”—viewers gazing at phosphoric BBC content in mystical electro-space—and towards representations that depict the use and function of iPlayer in the spaces and routines of everyday British life.
In the move from portals to port-a-loos (the tempting alternative title for this blog), a 2012 trailer called “Beyond the Computer” would depict the iPlayer logo descending onto screen devices being used in a range of spaces across the UK, from buses, beach huts, canal boats and office blocks to windmills, flats and the aforementioned portable toilet. Promoting the extension of iPlayer onto multiscreen devices, this trailer emphasized platform mobility in contemplative representations of “digital Britain.”
More recently, however, iPlayer campaigns have taken a different tack, and have focused more deliberately on what BBC managers that Catherine Johnson and I have interviewed call the “need-states” of on-demand television. This involves communicating the relevance, rather than simply the availability, of iPlayer to audiences. A 2014 campaign called “Always There When You Need It” demonstrates this attempt to show how iPlayer can serve the “entertainment needs” of prospective users. Targeted at the audience persona of “mainstream mums”—women in their thirties and forties with children, seen by the BBC as a group that under-uses iPlayer—the promo imagined “moments and opportunities” where iPlayer could fill gaps and fit into the time-pressed lives of people negotiating hectic, harassed and occasionally hungover moments of the day.
At some level, “always there when you need it” chimes with Max Dawson’s analysis of DVR advertising in the U.S. By the terms of his argument, digital television technologies became linked in the 2000s to discourses of attention management. Dawson connects this to wider neoliberal ideologies and the reflexive project of learning how to allocate attention profitably. Alert to quotidian moments, “Always There When You Need It” depicts scenes where iPlayer solves problems of time and attention in social, familial and workday life—from viewing “opportunities” on a delayed train to calming over-energetic children.
And yet, there is something in these promos that extends beyond a concern with the profitable allocation of attention. In cultural terms, they also contribute to the way the BBC has sought to promote its identity and value as a (digital) public-service broadcaster. In a period when the BBC is having to justify its purpose and unique funding arrangement ahead of charter review in 2016—and in the face of attacks by a Conservative government intent on reducing the corporation’s size—it is perhaps no surprise that the BBC has developed vernaculars that imagine, and assert, the BBC as something that wraps around British life. While the purpose of “always there when you need it” was to highlight iPlayer’s capacity to meet entertainment needs, this trailer and subsequent promotions (such as this year’s “if you love something let it show” campaign, which invites audiences to share recommendations through iPlayer) have as much to say about the BBC’s own political “need-states” as they do the conditions and situations where audiences might turn to iPlayer as a service.