According to BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, “British ideas are no longer strangers in LA and the world’s other media capitals.” But those outside of the UK — including British citizens — can’t officially get their fix of British content through the BBC’s iPlayer.

That’s something Thompson hopes will be fixed, and fixed soon. In a speech at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, Thompson told attendeesWithin a year we aim to launch an international commercial version of
the iPlayer. Subject to Trust approval, we also want to find a way of
letting UK licence payers and servicemen and servicewomen use a version
of the UK BBC iPlayer wherever they are in the world.

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer. Allowing access to content anytime, anywhere is a consumer expectation these days, and as it relates to the iPlayer specifically, the cat is already out of the bag; I’ve met several expats who have VPNs so that they can access the iPlayer.

Unfortunately, a global iPlayer may not happen as quickly or as easily as Thompson would like. The reason: independent producers looking to retain control of their content aren’t ready to give in to Thompson’s iPlayer plans.

Shortly after Thompson indicated his interest in making sure that the iPlayer would, as a start, be accessible to British licensee payers anywhere in the world, John McVay, who is the head of trade group Pact, told paidContent:UK point blank: “This has not been agreed with the BBC and we will resist this.

According to paidContent:UK’s Robert Andrews, the wording of the BBC’s existing agreement may favor the producers’ position. Thompson seems to acknowledge this; in his speech he noted “we may need more flexibility from the producers.” The question, of course, is whether the kind of flexibility the BBC needs will be forthcoming. That seems quite unlikely, at least in the short term.

But contractual issues aside, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Thompson was right when he observed:

Unlike almost every other country in the world other than the US, the UK is a net exporter of television services – but the scale is still pretty small. In 2008, UK net exports of TV services were just under £200 million. Management consultancy was over six times as much, computer services 18 times as much. And please don’t ask about the banks.

And that small net export figure is because today we have an industry which is mainly focused on its home market, with programme and channel brands many of which are unknown in the rest of the world. Who is the competition in these global markets? Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation. If we don’t invest and organise for success – not on the basis of one format here, one comedy script there, but as an industry – we will remain what we are today: a very talented minnow. Now is the moment to put that right.

While doing that will require much more than a globally-accessible iPlayer, making British content more widely accessible via the internet does have a role to play. Unfortunately, the content business is more complex today than it has ever been. There are plenty of good reasons for that, but these complexities, and the inability and unwillingness of stakeholders to address them, are arguably hurting the content business more than they’re helping it. Hopefully everyone involved in the iPlayer conversations going forward will keep that in mind.