The BBC is "reinventing" its popular iPlayer service to better compete with video on demand giants like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video by personalising content for users who will soon be forced to sign in.

Speaking at the Tech for Britain conference in London last week Matthew Postgate, chief technology and product officer at the BBC, said: "We recognise that audiences are changing and the biggest impact is in the online space, which is why we are reinventing BBC iPlayer.

© BBC iPlayer
© BBC iPlayer

"Our goal, even in the face of rapid growth from our competitors, is for BBC iPlayer to be the number one online TV service in the UK. This means we have to make the leap from a catch up service to a must-visit destination in its own right."

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BBC iPlayer is paid for by public TV licence fees, whereas tech giants like Netflix and Amazon have budgets in the billions of dollars to spend on engineering for its platform, marketing and content acquisition.

The key for the BBC to achieve this ambitious goal is around personalisation. The success of Netflix to date has hinged on it being a personalised content platform. Users sign in to their account and the machine learning algorithms adapt what it pushes on customers depending on previous viewing habits.

The BBC director general Tony Hall has already spoken about the "MyBBC revolution" to reinvent the BBC's various public service broadcasting streams -- including news -- around better personalisation, and iPlayer seems a natural place to focus these efforts.

"The thing that pins all of these challenges together is personalisation," Postgate said, "this is perhaps something which is common in other industries but for broadcasters is a relatively new development".

"We know that online services which mould themselves to us as individuals, rather than reflect the institutions which provide them, is not a new concept, but we want to do it in a very BBC way. So not telling you what customers like you bought, but what you may love to watch or like to know."

The BBC plans to make all iPlayer users sign in to use the service at some point this year. Postgate says that "several million people are already enjoying a personalised BBC".

The BBC is already seeing signed in users spend a fifth more time engaging with content than non-signed in users.

Postgate does admit that the BBC has some catching up to do if it is to compete in the personalised content world though. "I think the BBC is starting a bit further back. We had a very successful ten to fifteen years of being a non-signed in experience. So we have a bit of catching up, and because of that the first features you will see on iPlayer are the ones that are very obvious, like recommendations."

The BBC is also currently running experiments within its research and development centre around further applications of machine learning for greater personalisation of iPlayer, once it has the majority of users signed into the service.

Postgate said one of the craziest things he has seen still in the labs at the BBC is something he calls 'mood based classification'.

"This is a version of iPlayer where you say how long you have got and say if you want to be happy, sad, excited or whatever and it runs algorithms across the archive and suggests shows on that basis," he said.