BBC looking to open up programme archive with new paid-for digital service

Fancy watching a 1976 episode of Doctor Who? Auntie is looking at ways you can stream whatever you want

Sherlock s4 flooded baker street rooms

The BBC wants viewers to be able to access all their favourite shows from the Corporation’s entire archive in a new paid-for digital service.

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Director general Tony Hall outlined his grand vision for the new proposition to MPs today in response to questions about whether young people are deserting traditional linear television for on-demand digital services.

Asked if the BBC was facing a demographic “time bomb” Hall said: “We are looking at ways… to allow people to access the back catalogue [in a way] that costs something because you pay for that access.

“The charter agreement allows us to experiment with those sort of services. At the moment the way to access programmes like Dad’s Army or EastEnders is through UKTV and we need to look at ways of doing what we do there, through UK TV linear services, into an on-demand environment.”

If it does get off the ground, the new paid-for service would probably be accessed via the BBC iPlayer which Hall said he wanted to eventually become “the place you go for your complete experience with the BBC.”

However a BBC source said that the precise mechanism for streaming all episodes of favourite programmes like Doctor Who and Sherlock has not yet been decided on. “At this stage we’re thinking about how we best use our archives but it’s far too early to pin that down,” said the senior source.

Speaking to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Hall admitted that the BBC tried to replicate a paid-for archive service with the ill-fated “download and keep” BBC Store which was closed down this summer after just 18 months.

“We made the decision to go into download-to-own when the market looked like [it would work],” said Hall. “It was an experiment. We got out of it quick.”

He said that the market had “changed very quickly” and that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon had shown that millions of people prefer instant on-demand access to their favourite shows. But he added: “We are not in a position where we say ‘it’s all over for linear TV’. Linear TV is still the way you reach most younger people.”

In his long question-and-answer session Hall said that that the BBC will continue to make constant modifications to its iPlayer service and indicated that the Radio iPlayer needed particular attention.

He said that the BBC will revamp Radio iPlayer, which he admitted was “old fashioned”, next year.

“The Radio Player to my mind… feels rather old fashioned,” he said. “I think we have the best radio in the world but it’s sometimes hard to find.”

Hall also said that he was keen for the BBC World TV service to be made free to access in Europe and Africa in order to improve the UK’s so-called “soft power” around the world.

Lifting the existing paywall on BBC World in Europe and Africa was something he said was especially important to the UK with Brexit looming. But he admitted that to do this would require Government subsidy and would be a matter for Parliament.

Speaking to the MPs, who were quizzing the BBC’s top team about its 2016/17 annual report, Hall reiterated his promises to close the gender pay gap by 2020 but said that the BBC was also wary that, in paying more to women stars, it didn’t actually inflate its existing overall wage bill.

He declined to be drawn on whether the rumoured move of Today presenter Sarah Montague – who was not on the list of stars earning £150,000 or more – to the World at One on Radio 4 was part of the BBC’s plans to give Montague a pay rise.

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He did admit, however, that the prospective move – which would see her effectively swap jobs with Martha Kearney – was “under discussion”.