More than 63m people are accessing the BBC’s iPlayer from outside Europe without paying the subscription fee required of international users.
Global Web Index, the world’s largest study of Internet use, has identified 35m in China alone who are using the BBC’s popular streaming service for free. Shows such as Doctor Who, Torchwood and Top Gear are driving demand for iPlayer in China.
GWI said the vast unauthorised access of iPlayer was a result of the growth of Virtual Private Network services, encrypted secure computer networks which are popular in China because they enable users to access websites blocked by the authorities.
VPN services, which can be used on iPhone and Android mobiles, are being used internationally to gain free access to hit TV shows and music via global streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, according to GWI’s research.
Other countries with large numbers of people accessing iPlayer without paying for subscriptions include the United States, India, Brazil, Russia and Germany. A total of 63.4m are using the BBC streaming service via VPN, GWI reports.
The BBC launched its global iPlayer app in 11 countries in Europe three years ago and charges those users €6.99 for a monthly subscription - around £73 a year or half the price of the UK licence fee.
Tom Smith, GWI’s CEO, said the BBC was missing a major opportunity to serve advertising to a vast global audience that was not being monetised.
“If people are viewing anyway and the content is being funded by the UK it would make sense to monetize it in some format. It’s a missed opportunity for the BBC,” he said. He acknowledged it would be “hard to sell subscriptions” to this audience when “VPN is so successful”.
The figures were contained in GWI’s report this month The Missing Billion, highlighting Internet users who are often missed in conventional studies. The report was based on interviews with 170,000 people in 32 countries over the past year and 500,000 since 2009. GWI tracks 400m VPN users internationally.
The BBC said it would not advertise to people who were accessing its services unlawfully. A spokesman said: “The BBC has been trialling global iPlayer outside the UK. We are very much aware of the appetite for British content abroad and we licence programmes to broadcasters and are launching BBC channels in other territories.