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At last: some competition for the BBC's iPlayer

WHEN the BBC released its iPlayer at the tail-end of 2007, few expected it to be such a runaway success. But according to Ofcom, a staggering 15 per cent of consumers with a broadband connection &ndash; or some 5.2m people &ndash; now regularly use the iPlayer to catch up with BBC shows.<br /><br />To put these figures in context, when ITV was launched in 1955 &ndash; almost a decade after the BBC resumed its television service after the war &ndash; just 4.5m TV licences had been issued to a population of 50m.<br /><br />Nor is the iPlayer the preserve of young, web-savvy teenagers and twenty-somethings. According to the BBC, the so-called &ldquo;iPlayer man&rdquo; is 40 years old, in full time employment, with a partner &ndash; but without any kids. This is exactly the kind of consumer that advertisers are desperate to target, thanks to his large disposable income and the difficulty of reaching him through other forms of media.<br /><br />That&rsquo;s why there has been a huge rush to ape Auntie&rsquo;s huge success when it comes to serving up full-length television shows online. And &ndash; at long last &ndash; the competition is beginning to shape up.<br /><br />Last month, Microsoft quietly launched its MSN UK player, which is being masterminded by Ashley Highfield, the force behind the iPlayer&rsquo;s debut. Although it hasn&rsquo;t had much publicity, almost 170,000 shows &ndash; which include archive content like old episodes of Peep Show and Shameless &ndash; were watched on the service in its first 11 days.<br /><br />It doesn&rsquo;t come close to the 359,000 shows that the iPlayer served up in its first week &ndash; or the 850,000 in its first fortnight &ndash; but its yuletide launch was underpinned by the kind of marketing campaign that only Auntie can buy, with adverts after all the Beeb&rsquo;s most popular show.<br /><br />Elsewhere, ITV.com is also building up its audience. In the first half of 2009, it served up around 116m shows, a massive increase on the 31m it managed in 2008.<br /><br />According to Screen Digest analysts, ITV will generate digital revenues of &pound;34m this year, although such a figure will do little to cushion the &pound;122m drop in first half group revenues it reported last month. But by 2013, ITV.com and Channel 4&rsquo;s 4oD, will be raking in &pound;75m in ad revenue, says Screen, at which stage it&rsquo;s possible to see how digital revenues could go some way to easing the huge structural decline in broadcasting.<br /><br />Not only are these products pulling in real revenues, but the cost of distributing content online will only get cheaper as the price of bandwidth, storage and processing power continues to fall. On-demand video services offer a real ray of hope at an otherwise dismal time for the broadcasting industry.