Friday, 18 May 2007

BBC iPlayer: free TV, radio programme downloads on demand - preview






This is a first look at the BBC iPlayer, the umbrella term for "catchup TV" and other "on demand" services proposed by the BBC's management. The new services were finally approved on 30 April 2007 by the BBC Trust following an extensive public consultation - but with a couple of changes (see the BBC news report, and my earlier post on the consultation - the BBC Trust have produced FAQs on the main changes).

UPDATE 30 June: there will be an open beta launch on 27 July (on how to sign up, screenshots etc and a video, see this post), with a full public launch in autumn 2007. Streaming, series stacking and the integration of BBC Radio Player (all covered below) won't be available initially, but will be added over time. At least at launch iPlayer is intended to be fully accessible to visually impaired and hearing impaired people and those with restricted motor functions. Third party syndication will be via YouTube later this year (promo clips only with links back to the BBC site), and on cable via Virgin Media (full programmes within the 7 catchup period but no local storage, I believe), with possible syndication via other sites like MySpace, with whom the BBC are currently in talks. It is also to be available on Freeview sometime, though it's not clear to me whether this means Freeview on digital terrestrial TV, or on cable.

A "remarkable" 10,500 individuals and organisations responded; most of those were individuals, which I think is excellent - it's great that consumers are making their views heard on important proposals that will enable the Beeb to provide licence fee payers with on demand services and other services more in keeping with this age of increasing digital convergence.

I'll outline the proposals, and then launch into some details on the planned new services, as much as I know so far anyway, with screenshots and videos of the current latest version of iPlayer below. (I took part in the 2005-2006 trial of the iPlayer's predecessor, the BBC iMP or integrated media player, and posted on iMP key issues, tips and tricks, and initial views on iMP, and I am currently also participating in what they call the "BBC TV Test" which was designed to "test the technical resilience of the digital infrastructure that supports all the BBC's on-demand services, including BBC iPlayer" - more on that below).

When will the new services be available?

Originally the BBC said the services would launch "soon" after the BBC Trust's final approval, but more recent reports say "later this year", and the Financial Times of 1 May 2007 said it was "expected to be launched November", which judging by the progress of the BBC TV Test trial seems a lot more likely to me than late May.

In offering catchup TV only later in 2007, the BBC are unfortunately having to play catchup (see the BBC's own webpage about the on demand offerings of other TV broadcasters. And Greg Dyke, ex-Director General of the BBC, has publicly criticised the BBC Trust as a fudge which just slowed the BBC down on iPlayer).

UPDATE 30 June: as mentioned above, there will be an open beta launch on 27 July, with a full public launch in autumn 2007 (on how to sign up for the open public trials, screenshots etc and a video, see this post).

What are the proposed new BBC services?

There are to be four new services for UK licence fee payers:
  • BBC iPlayer. Three services will be under the umbrella of BBC iPlayer (formerly MyBBCPlayer or BBC iMP):
    • video on demand (VOD): 7 day TV catch up over the internet - catch up on missed BBC TV programmes broadcast up to 7 days ago (aka "retrospective scheduling"), plus all back episodes of certain new series even where broadcast more than 7 days ago (series stacking), via the internet (P2P downloads - watch on PC or portable media players etc) or
    • simulcast video - internet simulcast TV - BBC programmes streamed live (multicast) over the Net ("linear" rather than on demand) at the same time the TV programme is conventionally broadcast, so you can watch it on computer or, more likely, Net-connected PDA or mobile phone e.g. in a wi-fi café (simulcast radio is already available from the BBC)
    • audio on demand: non-DRM podcasts - download BBC radio programs without digital rights management (DRM), which means they're freely playable (on computer or iPods, other MP3 players, mobile phones etc), and freely copiable and transferable forever without restriction - but excluding classical music, full [deleted, I think they've changed this from their provisional conclusions but it's not entirely clear, see this comment] book readings, and commercial full track music.
  • Cable or IPTV. One service is via cable TV or IPTV (initially NTL / Telewest (Virgin Media) and Homechoice, who have been trialling it):
    • video - seven day TV catch-up via cable - i.e. again "video on demand", almost identical to catch up TV over the Net including series stacking, except you only have 7 days after broadcast to view a programme; you can't store it for later viewing.

Who will be able to get the new services?

Catchup TV

UK only. There are geographic restrictions - TV downloads will be available to UK TV licence fee payers i.e. only to computers or Net devices with a UK IP address. TV catch-up via cable or IPTV will only be accessible to subscribers to those services, of course - and then only if their provider actually offers TV catch up for BBC programmes.

Syndication by third parties. The BBC Trust consulted on a draft policy for wider syndication of BBC material e.g. by online aggregators like Google (YouTube?), and of course other cable or IPTV providers. The principles were fairly obvious: non-discriminatory, non-exclusive, platform neutral as far as possible, free, but consumption must again be restricted to within the UK. I guess we'll hear more about that at some point. The BBC previously agreed with Google to show BBC clips on YouTube so I wouldn't be surprised if things moved quite quickly on this front once iPlayer is officially launched.

UPDATE 30 June: according to a recent BBC press release,
"Later this year, [BBC iPlayer] will become widely accessible across bbc.co.uk, as well as via links from YouTube and a number of other potential distribution partners (subject to the BBC Trust's new syndication policy and management's guidelines [draft here]).
Users will be able to watch promotional clips of programmes, and link back to BBC iPlayer on bbc.co.uk, enabling them to download the full programme.
The BBC is in discussion with a wide range of potential distribution partners, including MSN, telegraph.co.uk, AOL, Tiscali, Yahoo!, MySpace, Blinkx and Bebo. "

Podcasts

In practice anyone anywhere will be able to download the DRM-free MP3 files of radio programmes, whether via iPlayer, browser download or software like iTunes.

TV simulcasts (mobile TV) - very few ISPs support this

Simulcast TV over the internet will be provided via multicast real time streaming from the BBC website; the programme resolution, or range of resolutions, is still to be determined. (From the BBC application footnote 73: "When a content provider unicasts content, they provide one stream of the content for each user wanting to watch it. When the provider multicasts it, it provides one stream to each ISP, and each ISP replicates this stream for all their users who wish to watch".)

Simulcasts are going to be via multicast technology to save the load on the BBC's servers and costs for the BBC, but it seems only very few ISPs can handle that as most ISPs' routers are only unicast-enabled (I've not had the chance to look into exactly which ones, but apparently not including the biggest ones!).

The BBC thinks over time more ISPs will upgrade to multicast; in fact (8.41) "these proposals are designed to drive ISPs toward installing multicasting routers in their networks". No one seems to have made much about this issue. Of course, till the major ISPs install multicasting routers, this seems a bit of a non-starter.

UPDATE 30 June: streaming won't be available at launch in summer/autumn 2007 but will only be added later.

I'll say a bit more about the two services that most interest me: seven-day catchup TV over the Net, and non-DRM audio downloads, then get down to the nitty gritty of iPlayer itself.

"7 day" catch up TV over the Internet

Time limits - what does "7-day" catchup mean? (7 days can mean 44 days...)

Effectively, catch-up internet TV via BBC iPlayer is the son of BBC iMP or MyBBCPlayer, trials of which I took part in during 2005-2006 (see my posts on iMP: key issues, tips and tricks, initial views). UPDATE: on how to sign up for the open public trials, screenshots etc and a video, now see this post.

They call it 7 day catchup - but "7 days" isn't really 7 days, hence the quotation marks I used, which the eagle-eyed will have spotted.

What we'll get, borrowing the terminology from 9.4.1 of the BBC Trust's public value assessment (PVA), is actually a succession of different windows (in total up to 44 days max. to watch a programme after its broadcast):
  • 7-day download window or distribution window: after initial broadcast of a show, it's available for download only for 7 days; plus
  • 30-day (originally 13 weeks) catch-up window, storage window or convenience window: you must open the downloaded programme at least once within thirty days after you first downloaded it, or else you'll lose access to it after that 30 day period expires; plus
  • 7 day consumption window: you then have 7 days after first opening the downloaded program to watch it in, but you can watch as often as you like in those 7 days. After those 7 days, pffft, the program self-destructs, disappears from your hard drive, becomes totally inaccessible, becomes an ex-programme, a programme that is no more, etc etc.

DRM

All that self-deleting and automatic inaccessibility after certain time limits is done through the magic of DRM (well many might use ruder words than "magic" to describe DRM, but I'll comment no further on that here. At least some in the music industry have said they want to get rid of DRM - and EMI have, with iTunes, while it's yay to Amazon for planning a digital music store offering non-DRM music downloads in competition with iTunes).

Basically they can use digital rights management to restrict how long you'll have to watch downloaded files, and also limit copying/sharing and access depending on location, though you can transfer the files and watch them on PMPs (portable media devices) if they support DRM, the sort of DRM the BBC are using anyway (the iMP trial supported the Orange SPV C500 and Portable Media Center). The same time limits will apply to watching downloads on portable devices, of course. The use of DRM for time restrictions etc was proposed by the BBC and agreed by the BBC Trust as preferable to the alternative of lower quality / reliability and more costly streaming video. (Also, "The Trust considered the argument that it is possible to provide content under an open licence and still realise its commercial value. It regards the business models for this approach to be unclear at present".)

UPDATE 30 June: it's interesting that in the BBC's 2-minute promo video for iPlayer (direct link) BBC Director of New Media Ashley Highfield spent as much as the last 30 seconds, yes that's a full quarter of the video's total duration, justifying DRM: "The OSC have already made their case to the Trust and the Ofcom, who said there is no case to answer. I'm more than happy to engage with the OSC in meaningful debate but as the OSC themselves said, in an ideal world the BBC wouldn't have DRM (digital rights management) on its programmes.We don't live in an ideal world. We simply wouldn't be able to offer the iPlayer unless our rights holder were happy that we were protecting their content." I fully appreciate the BBC has to come to a compromise with rights holders, but "there is no case to answer" etc seems a bit on the defensive side to me...

Why only 7 days to download?

The consultation focused on the reduction of the storage window, originally 13 weeks as proposed by the BBC Executive, to 30 days. But the major issue to me here is that the 7 day download window is too short for users (and in fact it's not just me, the BBC papers indicated that some other iMP triallists also said they felt it was too short). It's useless if you're on holiday for more than a week, or have a very busy spell and just forget. I bet people would download after 7 days if they could. I certainly would.

(The BBC Trust's PVA said in 9.4.2 that "BBC research, based on the NTL trial and where programmes were available for longer than one week under the series stacking proposition, showed that approximately 55% of programmes were viewed within a week of initial broadcast, 95% were viewed within four weeks and near to 100% within six weeks of initial broadcast. If this pattern, based on a limited trial, is representative of broader consumer behaviour, then a shorter window might be sufficient for meeting licence-fee payers’ consumption patterns." Eh? That research was used to justify shortening the storage window. But surely that research could equally be used to argue that, to meet consumption patterns, the download window should be increased to 4 to 6 weeks, rather than that the storage window should be reduced! I suspect that for many of those series stacking downloads, the first download was itself within the 4 to 6 week period rather than just 7 days; it would have been good to see the figures for that.)

There were suggestions that people either downloaded a day or two after broadcast, or else they wouldn't do it at all. I totally disagree, from my own experience. They need to cater for busy people too, who can barely draw breath until the weekend, and sometimes not even then. If they provided a longer window, I believe people would use it (and they can always gather stats to see what the actual usage pattern is in terms of when the first download happens; but the iMP trials never offered longer than 7 days, so it would be difficult to predict timings from that, even if the NTL trial stats are of help). I think it's not a question of progressive decrease in downloads as time goes by; I'm personally convinced there would be a spike, an increase, after a few days, at the weekend when people have more time.

The 7 day download window seems to be down to cost / value for money. Apparently it would be too expensive for the BBC to get permission from the rights holder for downloads more than 7 days after broadcast (plus, they want to exploit the secondary rights commercially after a period too, and not unduly damage the commercial opportunities for other broadcasters). To me, that makes little sense. If the total "watching window" (as I put it) could be 44 days, why can't they increase the download window to say 21 days, and reduce the storage window to 14 days? The total "watching window" wouldn't be much different, in fact a bit shorter (42 days = 21 + 14 + 7), and it would make life a lot easier for licence payers. Why would the rights holders charge more for 21 days plus 14 days, than for 7 days plus 30 days? What's the difference? I know the market does what the market does, but it's daft that they can't adapt.

So, though it may be a lost cause as both BBC management and BBC Trust seemed to agree on this point due to the costs and licensing issues, personally I think it's worth us consumers trying to lobby for 21 plus 14 plus 7 instead. The BBC Trust will review the whole thing in 24 months. The BBC Executive even want to roll out true video on demand (as people increasingly want the flexibility); Auntie clearly has vision - to me, the right vision - but whether the BBC Trust will in future listen more closely to the BBC's management and us mere licence fee payers, rather than powerful commercial broadcasters or other industry stakeholders as (it seems to me) they may have done with this round of proposed new BBC services, remains to be seen.

Now, back to 7 isn't 7. 7 days isn't 7 days in the case of series stacking either, because you can download back episodes of some new series more than 7 days after the episode is broadcast - see below for more on series stacking.

What content will be available?

No archives, yet. No archive TV material will be made available yet, unfortunately, i.e. not previously broadcast BBC programs. Only programmes broadcast after the launch date can be downloaded (including fresh broadcasts of repeats of archival material?). Over time the BBC do plan to digitise and provide on-demand access to their back catalogue, which I personally think well worth it in terms of not just user value but British cultural heritage. Sadly I was too late to sign up for the BBC Archive trial which was announced last month, which 20,000 lucky people are taking part in.

Future material. At launch, around 70% of the BBC’s network TV schedules will be available on catchup, to increase to more than 80% by 2010 (but the 70-80% should include popular programmes). In time the complete BBC TV schedule will be available on-demand. It's not the full 100% initially because of the practicalities of negotiating on-demand rights for the whole of the network content (according to the public value assessment.)

What's series stacking?

Series stacking is allowing "users retrospectively to download multiple episodes of up to 15% of on-demand television content... for first access within 30 days of download" (from the amended BBC TV service licence). In other words, it's TV catchup on all episodes of certain series. For example, with a 12-episode series, if you started watching the series part way through you could catch up on previous episodes even if they were broadcast more than 7 days ago. In fact all episodes including the first one would remain available for download until 7 days after the last episode had been shown.

The BBC decides which series to make stackable, but they can't total more than 15% of all the catchup TV content available from the Beeb; and they'll have to listen to the BBC Trust's views on what should or should not be stackable.The BBC Trust service licence says the series stacking function "should" be focused on "series which have a distinct run, with a beginning and an end and a clear narrative arc, or those with exceptionally high impact. It should cover a broad range of output." They were against stacking of "Long-running dramas, soaps, factual strands and magazine shows" and initially were going to restrict series stacking to only certain kinds of programmes meeting their editorial criteria, but they decided (especially as the public was very much in favour) that series stacking was sufficiently in the public interest and decided to allow it with a 15% quota and guidance as to suitability. So it's ultimately up to the BBC, as long as they stay within the 15% limit and don't stray too far from the BBC Trust's one true way.

UPDATE 30 June: series stacking won't be available at launch in summer/autumn 2007 but will only be added later.

Examples of programmes which the BBC Trust felt should be offered for series stacking and programmes which should not:


Stackable seriesNon–stackable series
Bleak HouseEastenders
Planet EarthHorizon
Doctor WhoLater with Jools Holland
The Power of ArtTop Gear
Strictly Come DancingBlue Peter

Non-DRM audio podcasts

Time limits?

In practice the BBC may possibly set a time period after broadcast during which non-DRM audio downloads will be available, although the BBC Trust is not actually imposing one. Of course, even if there is a time limit, someone who downloads this kind of podcast will be able to use and copy it freely for all time, anyway.

What kind of content will be available?

The BBC Trust said that the BBC "may also offer broadcast radio content for download for an unlimited period of time after broadcast, although this must not include unabridged readings of published works nor full track commercial music nor full tracks of classical music (even if recorded by the BBC)".

In other words:
  • no full [deleted, I think they've changed this from their provisional conclusions but it's not entirely clear, see this comment] audio book readings
  • no popular music, and
  • not even full tracks of classical music. So, effectively, no music, period. (Except classical music as incidental music or signature tunes. That's allowed, how very magnanimous of the Trust.)
The exclusion of full track commercial music was on the cards from the start and given the perceived potential huge market impact if it's included, I'm not surprised the BBC Executive and BBC Trust did not consider its inclusion. (According to A2.25 of the market value assessment, full track commercial music is: ‘the full length of a ‘sound recording’ of a ‘musical work’ (both of which are protected copyright works), in which the writer(s)/composer(s), music publisher and record company have rights, which has been released for commercial sale e.g. on CD or as a download, and normally by a record company’)

But it's a big shame about classical music and book readings. I personally believe there should not be a blanket ban on classical music, much of which is out of copyright, and which the BBC had planned to record internally for broadcast (so avoiding rights/licensing problems). I feel there should at least be some ability to offer downloads of littler-known music to help increase exposure and hopefully build up audiences for more niche material. (The same argument applies to some pop music too, of course, and free downloads have been instrumental in spreading the word about some bands and ultimately leading to their commercial success, as is well known, most famously in relation to the Arctic Monkeys). The BBC Trust decided to ban classical podcasts because they felt it would threaten the commercial market for classical recordings, despite 66% of the over 10,000 individuals who responded to the BBC Trust's consultation supporting non-DRM classical downloads, and Mark Thompson the BBC's director general has since reiterated the BBC's disagreement and disappointment with the Trust's decision.

For book readings, I don't personally think sellers of audio books would suffer disproportionately as a result. Again I think exposure and publicity would help encourage people to go and buy something they might not otherwise have heard of. And there is the accessibility factor. Excluding downloads of full audio book readings would disadvantage the blind or disabled (e.g. who can't hold a book very well), who could benefit greatly from access to them.

The good news, however - existing services won't be affected, notably BBC Radio "Listen Again" (which is easily available on Macs too). People can already record streamed internet radio using cheap or free software like Freecorder anyway, yes including classical music and book readings (just like they can record it from live radio including digital quality DAB via e.g. the Pure Digital Bug or Elan), so not allowing full downloads makes even less sense. Such downloads, I feel, could get people interested in music they might not otherwise listen to. People wanting top quality audio would then go off and buy the full CD etc anyway. I've also made the point about free material not necessarily being at the expense of the paid market, in my answers to the consultation questions in my previous post, so I won't repeat it here.

UPDATE 30 June: looks like non-DRM podcasts won't be available at launch in summer/autumn 2007 but will only be added later.

So what exactly is BBC iPlayer anyway?

"BBC iPlayer version 1.0" will in fact stand for two separate but related things (I'm assuming Apple, who've battled the Beatles themselves over the use of "Apple" in music, haven't got a monopoly on the use of "iWhatever", iSqueez etc, though maybe not iPhone, in the same way easyJet seem to claim but not always win on easyWhatever! Or else what will the BBC do??):
  • BBC interface / branding: a single unified consistent user interface/brand to give UK licence payers on-demand access to the BBC's audio and video content from the BBC website integrating and replacing all existing BBC players and consoles within bbc.co.uk: currently the BBC Radio Player, BBC News Player, BBC Weather Player, BBC Sport Player and BBC Media Console Player (UPDATE 30 June: Radio Player won't be available via iPlayer at launch in summer/autumn 2007 but will only be added later.)
  • Software: a download manager by Kon Tiki (to be available as a free download from the BBC website) to:
  • (Note that iPlayer doesn't include a media player - it uses player software already on your computer, initially Windows Media Player 10.)
Non-DRM audio podcasts may be downloaded via iPlayer for convenience - but as they're just standard MP3 files they can be accessed in other ways too e.g. via iTunes or just normal download via web browsers.

UPDATE 30 June: Technical - it seems that others involved in the development, as well of course as the BBC Future Media & Technology team, include Red Bee Media, and Verisign working through Siemens, and Autonomy for the search and browse facility.

Microsoft, Apple, Linux and platform neutrality

There's been an outcry, particularly by Apple Mac users, about the planned initial rollout of 7-day internet catch-up via the BBC iPlayer download manager only for Microsoft Windows XP computers. This was because DRM was required to deal with the time restrictions required by the BBC / rights holders, and Windows Media Player 10 (or above) was the only system that could do this, and XP was the only operating system supporting WMP10.

The BBC had been planning anyway to provide, eventually, catchup TV via RealPlayer (which can be used on Apple Macs etc) - but the public support has been overwhelmingly in favour of catchup TV being available on a platform-agnostic basis, quite understandably and rightly, so the BBC Trust are putting more emphasis on this aspect. As the BBC are dependent on third parties to get the iPlayer download manager working on non-Microsoft operating systems, the BBC Trust have decided not to impose a specific time limit (initially 2 years) for when a non-Microsoft alternative has to be available by, but will be reviewing progress every 6 months instead.

UPDATE 30 June: complaints continue to be reported about the BBC approach e.g. by the Open Source Consortium. It seems "a version for Apple Macs could be available in autumn, with versions for Window's Vista and mobile devices to follow."

BBC iPlayer in action - pre-beta trial

As mentioned, the iPlayer is the successor to the iMP or integrated media player or MyBBCPlayer (anyone interested in iMP can also see screenshots from last year's iMP trial on my blog and on the BBC site.)

System requirements

For the BBC TV Test pre-beta trial of iPlayer: broadband connection with Windows XP (not yet Vista compatible), Internet Explorer 6 browser (or later), Windows Media Player 10 (or later) with DRM enabled; a video card and sound card capable of playing streamed or downloaded programmes; and JavaScript enabled in the browser. Obviously, you also need to download the iPlayer download manager. Vista compatibility is being worked on, as is Mac compatibility. UPDATE: for system requirements now see this page and on how to sign up for the open public trials, screenshots etc and a video, see this post.

Access to iPlayer and programme downloads

You can't get into the iPlayer part of the BBC website without a username and password to access their walled garden. The only bit of the secure iPlayer section which you can see without a password is the display settings page so have a look at that if you're curious.

In the trial, at least, you also can't download a programme unless you've, in addition, registered with the BBC for their BBC Single Sign On (SSO) system. Existing members of other bbc.co.uk services like Celebdaq can use their usual login details for this bit.

UPDATE: On how to sign up for the open public trials, screenshots etc and a video, see this post.

iPlayer in action

Update 30 June: iPlayer will launch as an open beta on 27 July 2007, with a full marketing launch this autumn, the BBC have announced (as reported in various news sources e.g. the BBC News website). On how to sign up for the public trials, see this post.

Here's a BBC promo video (note that the embed code and full story are from the BBC News website i.e., and I recite, This content is from the BBC News Website (this page), as I wouldn't want to fall foul of the BBC again - I trust that was enough of a full functional link and attribution, but I can well imagine that in many cases it wouldn't be easy to figure out which BBC News content us mere bloggers are supposed to link to or what attribution to use; why don't the BBC add that link to the embed code and then people wouldn't have to puzzle / worry about it?). There's with a few screenshots of iPlayer in action towards the end of the video, just don't blink too often:



Here's a video with a quick walk through the pre-beta trial version, as it was earlier this week: (REMOVED, SEE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS POST. Further update: The BBC have now said it's OK to put it back up but YouTube haven't removed the block yet. So here's a new video showing the iPlayer software in action:




The BBC have since asked triallists to uninstall iPlayer completely and wait for the next incarnation, which is interesting as the last incarnation only became available last week - maybe there have been more problems than originally expected. UPDATE: the trial is now steaming ahead again, and has been opened out more widely - see this post.

And here's what the iPlayer picture and sound are like, again in last week's version - the quality's in fact very good, anything which seems rough is down to my video recording software, my not very powerful processor plus the compression necessary for uploading to YouTube!:

(REMOVED, SEE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS POST. Further update: The BBC have now said it's OK to put it back up but YouTube haven't removed the block yet. To watch a video of the current version of iPlayer in action, see this instead.)

(Credits: CamStudio 2.00 for the screen recording, thanks Nick the Geek!, and Screaming Bee's MorphVOX Junior 2.6 for the voice changer, you didn't think that was my real voice, did you? I blog anonymously, but my voice is quite distinctive and people have recognised me after just one phone conversation, so no way am I using my real voice on the videos. VirtualDub for compressing the AVI video file took ages and still kept not working, as did several other programs I tried, so finally I had to use Windows Movie Maker. All open source or free.)

I can't show the download process as the iPlayer site wasn't accessible when I recorded the video, but basically you can view a TV schedule on the site, like a calendar, ideally search for something you wanted, and then click to download it. Here are some screenshots but they are of the old pre-pre-beta site so be warned they'll be even more out of date than the versions on the video: REMOVED, SEE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS POST

What about picture quality, screen size?

First, a note about how it will work. For catch up TV over internet everyone generally talks about "downloads" but in fact it seems there will be "streaming" options for some programmes (where it plays as you watch or listen, rather than your having to download the whole programme before you can start playing it).

Streaming. A limited number of programmes (approximately 60 hours of content per week at launch due to capacity constraints; but will comprise the most popular programmes) will also be streamed on demand (via unicast), offering the option of immediate access without a download wait. The streamed offer will be lower quality than download option and at launch would be made available at quarter-screen size. The technology required to use this streaming service is expected to be a minimum of Windows 98 and Microsoft Windows Media Player 9 or RealPlayer. (PVA 2.4.1, p. 22).

Download. However, catch-up TV over internet via download will be available in full screen quality "at a quality comparable to a standard definition analogue TV broadcast" and as you'll have seen above, it's pretty decent quality. I predict people will increasingly want to pipe the picture to their TV sets, ideally wirelessly (see below), and picture quality will be important.

Any particular issues?

The BBC say shortcomings to the current system will be improved including unavailability of repeats for downloads (as the 7 days is from when the programme originally airs - interesting this, I'd always thought repeats wouldn't trigger another 7 days, but it seems they're meant to). Plus searching capabilities on the website will be expanded including the ability to search for programmes by title.

As for other issues I've noticed, the major one is the file size and download time - as I said on the video, it can take half a day just to download a single programme, and it's nearly 1 GB per program too. That should improve as more people use iPlayer (as it's based on peer to peer file sharing), but still it's not exactly instant gratification. Quality of user experience is a factor the BBC Trust considers important, and the download delay doesn't help on that front - but streaming would produce lower quality video/audio.

UPDATE 30 June: BBC director of future media & technology Ashley Highfield said "over a 2MB broadband connection half an hour of programming would take approximately half an hour to download." Who wants to wait that long, I ask?

(And depending on what kind of plan you have with your ISP, it could really cost you too. The increase in costs was predicted, it remains to be seen how providers and their customers will adjust to the expected huge increase in bandwidth requirements not just because of iPlayer but also because of the more general rise in the demand for VOD and IPTV.)

A facility called "bookmarking" or "booking" a download (to schedule a download of a show in advance of its broadcast) would have helped improve reach and address service quality issues i.e. concerns about download speeds and time delays, if users could book in advance to download something in the background. I don't know what's behind it, but it seems that the BBC management decided to drop bookmarking from their request for approval, even though the BBC Trust asked specifically if they wanted to include it (see the FAQs). I think that bookmarking is important, if not essential, given that downloads take so long. I think booking should have been a feature of iPlayer from the outset. Why restrict people to being able to download only after the broadcast? Why can't they use the EPG (electronic programme guide) to book in advance of transmission when they want to download something? (This post sets out the arguments very well.)

While I've disagreed with the Trust's decisions on some aspects, I do think it's very positive that they're going to ask the BBC Executive to resubmit a formal proposal for bookmarking and that they think it might not necessarily require yet another full "public value test" (see below). In fact, as things are, downloads just don't seem very workable to me without the ability to bookmark.

Errors. Some people seem to have suffered from unknown "Delivery errors" relating to proxy settings, but supposedly this should now have been fixed, or at least when iPlayer goes live again I assume it'll be fixed. I've been getting Javascript errors too (but I did with iMP too, and of course it's early days yet). Reinstallation seems to be the answer.


Usability is another bugbear of mine. While I know that the BBC have been very conscious about accessibility (and the amended TV licence emphasises its importance), from a user-friendliness viewpoint I hope the iPlayer will be better than iMP and have a lot more keyboard shortcuts - I've made that point already in my post on the consultation.

Major issue: PC vs TV, PC to TV

With the increasing convergence of PC and TV - FreeTube, Joost, the launch of downloadable video on demand by all the other major UK TV broadcasters like ITV (to be free, ad-funded) and Channel 4 (4od) etc - there's one big factor I think the BBC Trust and others might have underestimated. As I said in my summary of major issues with internet downloads of TV programs after the BBC iMP trial and my previous post about the consultation, I believe most people would prefer to watch video material on a large screen TV set from a sofa, not a PC monitor screen, for reasons of visual quality, sociability and comfort (though I know you can now chat live with your friends over the Net while watching the same video!). I feel the new services will only take off generally, and take off the quickest, as and when it becomes dead easy to watch downloaded content on a normal TV.

The powers that be do appreciate that: that's why they think catchup over cable, which of course is immediately watchable on TV via the cable set top box, will be much more popular than catchup over Net. That's why Ashley Highfield, the Beeb's Director of New Media and Technology, said they're rolling out iPlayer to broadband users first, then cabled homes, Macs, but then media centres, and smart handheld devices, then the "really tricky platforms: DTT [digital terrestrial TV] via either PVRs or IP hybrid boxes".

But I suspect digital media receivers, digital media adapters or DMAs, digital multimedia receivers, wireless media players and the like may become a lot more popular a lot more quickly than they think, driven not just by iPlayer but (more likely) by the VOD services other broadcasters are offering. You can already buy, for about £150 to £200, equipment to watch, on your TV set, video downloaded to your PC. Some of that gear is wireless, so you don't even need a cable between PC and TV. Some come with remote control for playing, pausing etc the video. Such devices will become increasingly attractive to gadget freaks and, in time, even non-early adopters. And some, like a Philips unit I've seen in passing, even support WMP DRM.

The BBC description does briefly mention convergence and that linear digital TV set top boxes (STBs) will become internet-enabled, but that's only one possible option. I'm talking about piping video from PC to TV, not providing video on demand via Freeview or Net-enabled STBs. The key point really is, how soon will DMAs etc become user-friendly and cheap enough for the mainstream (and usable for replaying programmes downloaded via iPlayer and the like, DRM permitting)? If I were an electronics manufacturer I'd be putting money into this. From a consumer viewpoint users would just want a very easy to use gizmo (yes all right "media center"!) where a consumer can simply plug one bit into their computer, another into their TV, ideally with no cable between them, plus minimal and straightforward software installation on the PC and a remote control that works like a normal TV one, but preferably not requiring line of sight to the PC (and of course, my eternal bugbear, simple userfriendly setup instructions for non-geeks). And ideally it should be Mac and Linux compatible too.

Longer term, yes there will be STBs with hard drives where you can store the downloaded content and not have to leave the PC on in order to watch catchup TV, even Net-enabled STBs to which you can download stuff direct without needing a PC. But my point is, the technology is available now (again DRM limitations permitting!), and I think people will start using it if - the big if - they think it's worth it. Is it worth it? Maybe not if BBC content is all you can get over the Net (and a limitation of iPlayer is that at first it'll work only for BBC content). I'd hesitate, myself; sorry Auntie, content is king and if I'm not going to watch BBC live because the programs don't catch my interest, I wouldn't watch it retrospectively either... But VOD and IPTV / internet TV from all sorts of sources, not just the BBC, are starting to be available - and I'm sure that will stimulate demand for media centres etc generally.

So, I believe that sales of "digital media receivers" and the like will increasingly take off (and their prices will fall) in the same way that, as Mr Highfield notes in the same speech, Freeview boxes are now flying off the shelves. (I hope Dixons, Maplins,Tesco Direct etc take note and start stocking up!)

What about the commercial iPlayer? What's that?

You may have heard of the planned BBC "commercial iPlayer". That's different. It's an initiative by the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, to monetise the same technology / software that's to be used for the free downloads, i.e. iPlayer. It's to be launched in September 2007 (or maybe later, now?) in the UK and then US and Australia.

Initially they wanted to offer BBC archive material, both video and audio, on a pay per download basis. But John Smith of BBC Worldwide has been talking about advertiser funding and other broadcasters making their programmes available via iPlayer too, "saying they could create an alternative to Apple's iTunes site for video and audio downloads... John Smith, chief executive of BBC Worldwide, said its iPlayer software could be "like Freeview [the digital terrestrial television service] in creating a new digital platform for broadcasters, giving them a chance to control their own destiny, but like [British] Sky [Broadcasting] in its opportunities for monetisation".

Update 30 June: it seems the commercial iPlayer for global audiences could launch in 2008.

Any other points of interest?

The vast amount of research undertaken by Ofcom and the BBC in relation to these proposals provides interesting insight into the state of the British market today, current media consumption by the UK public, etc, including the main changes following the introduction of digital terrestrial television or DTT i.e. Freeview.

This is the first time the BBC Trust have applied their new Public Value Test or PVT, which they're supposed to use from 1 January 2007 to evaluate proposed new BBC services. They must assess the public value of proposals (against certain criteria e.g. "reach" - increasing the BBC's audience), and weigh that against their impact on the market, in particular competing commercial services - e.g. in this case internet VOD, free or paid for; other simulcasts; DVD and VHS video tape rentals and sales; PVR sales; terrestrial, cable and satellite TV including what they call "linear TV" (as opposed to VOD); mobile TV etc.

The BBC Trust will be reviewing the new services in 24 months. They regard "reach" as critical to their public value assessment of the proposals, so anything that can increase reach would be considered good (although it must be balanced against market impact etc). "Reach – the services will help maintain the volume of BBC consumption as viewing and listening habits begin to shift from linear to on-demand. The internet-based services may also help improve consumption by and reach to younger audience groups and the proposition as a whole has the potential to increase the consumption and reach of niche, specialist programmes often found in the margins of linear schedules." I think a longer download window would have improved reach amongst the very busy sector of the population, while allowing book readings and classical music downloads would have increased consumption and benefited niche interests, but I've probably said enough on that!

I'll report further after the trial recommences, but all in all this is very positive, and not before time too.

UPDATE - now see the comment by Jem Stone of the BBC below UPDATE: The screenrecordings I had uploaded to YouTube of the BBC iPlayer in action have been removed, allegedly because of copyright infringement. I am trying to investigate this matter as BBC Worldwide did not attempt to contact me but went direct to YouTube and claimed the screencasts I'd made of the various views and tabs of iPlayer etc were copyright infringements. I haven't the resources to argue this so I've removed the YouTube links from here, obviously - and, just in case, though they've not said a word to me about that, I've removed the screenshots too. I've just left in the one with the Javascript error message, they'll have to talk to Microsoft about who owns copyright in a Windows error message! I'd deliberately not included more than a few seconds of the actual programmes, just enough to give an idea of video and sound quality, and this is clearly a review, and I'd thought that for review purposes it was OK to include very brief extracts, but obviously not according to the BBC.

If it was the demo of iPlayer they objected to, I don't understand the secrecy. I didn't give away any login or other access info, which they'd said had to be kept confidential, and I don't think they made it clear enough what else was meant to be confidential - why didn't they say that we're not even supposed to show people what it looks like, if that was their issue? I think it's a bit heavy handed as they didn't even try to discuss this with me and tell me which bits were a problem and why, in which case I'd have removed those bits. You'd have thought they'd want to encourage viewer interest in these new services, but... I guess we ought to stick with 5, Channel 4 and ITV etc! Maybe the person who commented wondering if the BBC were trying to keep Sky employees from having a peek was right. Though in the area of downloadable TV the other broadcasters are now ahead of the BBC, so I don't quite understand what it is they feel they need to keep quiet. I'd made it clear in my review that the final version will be different, so that people wouldn't be misled. I'll report back if I manage to get to the bottom of this. See the BBC Ask Bruce site for iMP screenshots, if you want an idea of what it might look like, but even the latest trial version looks quite different already, e.g. the programme schedule is accessed via Internet Explorer rather than iPlayer / iMP.

Further update: Clearly I'm not the only blogger now confused about what we are or are not allowed to say about the iPlayer trial - see this discussion.



13 comments:

David Brake said...

Thank you for providing this very thorough sneak preview. Two minor comments:
* I was told as a Sky Broadband user I would not be able to participate in the trial for technical reasons. I have to suppose it was actually a crude attempt to keep Sky employees from having a peek. Any idea why otherwise?
* Not being able to get full audiobooks is not a big restriction from present practice - I don't think any of the BBC's book broadcasts hitherto have been unabridged.

Improbulus said...

Thanks for your comment David.

That's interesting about Sky Broadband. I don't know what the issue is there. If you have XP and IE 6 or 7 and WMP 10, I'd have thought the Net download option would have been OK, but I just don't know enough to know if there's something technically difficult about the Sky broadband setup. I wouldn't have thought it was to keep Sky employees from peeking, but who knows?? Would be interested to hear if any Sky Broadband users at all got accepted on the trial.

Forgive my ignorance but it's not obvious to me - is Sky Broadband a cable service, or ADSL? If the former, I believe the only currently operational cable trials are for Virgin Media and Homechoice, so it could just be that.

Book readings and audio books - my beef is that I don't think the BBC Trust are just excluding full audio book readings from non-DRM downloads. From what I've seen of the final PVT conclusions and proposed service licence changes, book readings are excluded entirely - not just unabridged book readings.

Improbulus said...

David, I've pinned down the source of the confusion about book reading. The BBC Trust in their final decision said (p.21, see (d)) that book readings will be excluded entirely from non-DRM downloads.

However, I think someone forgot to amend the Service Licence on p.29, so that still says "unabridged". It seems fairly clear that this is a mistake and that they meant to delete "unabridged", but the Trust haven't explained their decision on book readings in their FAQ, and p. 14 1st para of their final conclusions suggests ALL book readings are to be excluded, so who knows.

If they'd finally decided to exclude all book readings, even abridged ones, because they were worried about the market for audio books, it's a bit odd that they didn't explain that (because they were consulting on excluding unabridged readings, not excluding all readings altogether!). I expect we'll find out on launch what they really meant.

Mapperz said...

Good Post. Have used the iMP in the original trial though had problems convincing the server that I was in Middle England on a BT Broadband connection (and paid a licence fee).
Once BBC Engineers got on the case and add IP it worked very well.
BBC was ahead on this game, I agree with ex-Director Greg Dyke they have trawled out the red tape in getting these services rolled out, the like of ITV Local, 4OD and other Internet based TV on demand (Joost).
Have used them all.
All have issues but with more use and faster connections this will be ironed out.
Like the News 24 and Local Area News available on the BBC site even when in other countries is available.
Looking for to the public release of this service

Mapperz
http://mapperz.blogspot.com/

Improbulus said...

Thanks for your comments mapperz. Guess you're not on the iPlayer trial itself too, then?

Yes I've tried several of the other on demand services too. As you say, hopefully faster connections will help. It's the content / programming that will drive take up, of course.

I'm looking forward to a working final version of this too!

DP said...

What about radio?

Have you tried new RadioCentrePlayer with UK commercial radio, BBC, and rest of the world?

Improbulus said...

DP, thanks for your comment. RadioCentrePlayer is indeed pretty cool. (I've included the link for those who aren't aware of it, or for those who can't access that version, try this).

It's great that it offers such a range of stations. But that's for live broadcasts. It's the catching up, the ability to download previously-broadcast programmes which you happened to miss at the time, that Listen Again/radio aspects of iPlayer aim to address, and I think that's slightly different.

Jem said...

Hi improbulus

A note as promised from myself. I'm Jem Stone and I work alongside the team that produce the iPlayer for the BBC.

This has taken longer than it should have done but i wanted to make clear that we acted far too hastily in removing your iplayer clip/screencast that you uploaded to YouTube a few months back.

We have no issue with you sharing that clip again (although I accept that its probably now not so relevant) and obviously any future screencasts/screenshots to help illustrate ongoing reviews of iplayer as it moves from private beta to public beta (later this week) and eventually to a full launch in the autumn.

In retrospect we could have been clearer about what users can/can't do in terms of blogging about the service during the beta. So this is a very belated
apologies
for the confusion and for asking Google to remove your video at the time. This was a very early release /design which as you know we've not in the end actually used.

Thanks again for the lengthy and in depth coverage of iPlayer. Looking forward to seeing more reviews (good or bad).

Also it was good to actually meet you in person last week and talk through the development of the iPlayer face to face.

Improbulus said...

Thank you for clearing that up Jem and for the apology, and it was very good to meet you and Tony too.

The clips are still marked as Rejected (Copyright infringement) on YouTube so if you could have a word with YouTube to remove the ban that would be great (to be honest I can't see many obvious differences between the iPlayer versions myself!). Many thanks.


Imp.

DP said...

Hello Improbulus,

Sorry, my June 20 response to yours didn’t get through. Most importantly, Radeo Internet Player and (UK preferenced) RadioCentrePlayer do include Listen Again, Archive, and Podcasts, as well as Live. They are organized as Shows with Episodes, in addition to Stations. Perhaps most easy to see in demo: Login: MyBBC (no password required).

For BBC offerings easily from one place—including Radio Player, News Player, Sport Player, Weather Player, Podcasts, and World Service (including foreign languages) and TV Clips, Film Network, and Collective—click the Search tab and open The BBC at the bottom of the list. This is significantly more than the BBC intends with iPlayer.

And, the personalization—presets, interests, playlists, histories, share and news emails—is beyond their horizon.

Streaming is the easy alternative for those that don't want the hassles, risks and costs of download and p2p. Web-based application plays personal preferences easily from any Internet access. MS Windows and Mac OS; IE, Firefox, and Safari browsers; Windows Media, Real, and QuickTime players. Free and easy—now.

(Also, well received by classical afficionados: http://theovergrownpath.blogspot.com/2007/07/classical-web-radio-users-guide.html )

DP

The Radeo Internet Player
More than 10,000 Stations, 20,000 Shows, and 800,000 Episodes—
Broadcasts, Webcasts, and Podcasts Worldwide—Audio and Video.
www.radeo.net

Improbulus said...

DP, thank you, point taken! Ahem you wouldn't happen to be associated with Radeo, would you...?

Searching all BBC offerings together is certainly helpful, although the Beeb do offer search on their own site.

Avery said...

DP, thank you, point taken! Ahem you wouldn't happen to be associated with Radeo, would you...?

Giuliana said...

Hi there,
I was trying to find out if there is a way for me to watch BBC via my computer in the U.S.? I found your site but it may not be your most recent post, so excuse if I'm querying to the wrong blog ;-) Anyway, is there a way for me to watch BBC via my computer? It seems there was some sort of AP in the works? Thanks muchly,
Giuliana