This is a guest post by Ryan Jarrett. Ryan is a UK-based IT consultant and blogs regularly on digital content.
The BBC will launch their long-awaited iPlayer this Friday, which has the potential to change the way television is watched by the masses. In this post we examine what the iPlayer is promising, the BBC’s future developments for TV over the internet, and how rival networks are competing for our bandwidth.
The iPlayer (formerly know as the iMP, or Interactive Media Player) was announced in 2003 and intended to be an extension to the successful Radio Player, built around RealPlayer. The final iPlayer is, thankfully, shaping up to be a much slicker affair, looking like a cross between Joost and a cable/satellite Electronic Program Guide (EPG). As long as you live in the UK, on launch you will be able to download a selection of programs up to 7 days after broadcast, and you then have 30 days in which to watch it before the DRM kicks in. I’m guessing that the range of programs will be similar to the offerings on Virgin Media’s “Replay” feature, i.e. most popular “home-grown” programs such as Eastenders, Doctor Who and Life on Mars.
The iPlayer has come under fire from open source advocates because, at launch, it will only be available for Windows XP users. This goes against the BBC’s charter, restricting the application, and therefore the programs, to certain systems. The BBC Trust has confirmed that versions for Apple Mac, Windows Vista and mobile platforms will follow [Ed. once the BBC can find a platform agnostic DRM solution, which could take some time], and more recently, the BBC’s announced that they are meeting with the Open Source Consortium (OSC). The OSC are to work with the BBC on the possibility of developing an open source iPlayer.
The BBC also plans to expand the functionality of the iPlayer, such as adding on-demand streaming, which would allow you to watch a program without downloading it first. They are also looking to add series stacking (allowing you to download previous episodes of a series) and integrating the Radio Player with the iPlayer. The BBC will be promoting the iPlayer heavily: via the BBC TV channels, links on the BBC website and also on partner websites such as YouTube, AOL and MySpace. There are indications that live streaming of BBC channels may also possible.
ITV are following the BBC’s lead, with the imaginatively titled “ITV Broadband“. They are offering programs that are viewable within the browser, using Windows Media Player integrated into their web pages. At the moment they are only offering 10 minutes catch-ups of the last 30 days’ episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, which are book-ended by adverts (being popular programs these are probably the two that could attract the most advertising and therefore generate the most online revenue), but that is set to expand. ITV are promising catch up options on Drama, Lifestyle, Entertainment, Sport and News programs, plus a “Best of ITV” section too.
The biggest drawback I found was that ITV Broadband (which is PC-only) favors Internet Explorer. The only way I could view content in Firefox was to use the IETab add-on, which allows the current tab to be rendered using the Internet Explorer engine instead of the Firefox one, but fortunately ITV have had the sense to display a link to download IETab where the video normally appears.
ITV also offers live streaming of their four channels from the website which is of reasonable quality.
It’s also worth mentioning ITV Local, the site for regional ITV broadcasters such as Granada, Meridian and Tyne Tees. The site streams news updates, weather reports and other videos from the region, on demand.
Channel 4′s “4oD” application has been available since December 2006 and is similar to the forthcoming iPlayer. You can download a selection of programs from Channel 4, More4 and E4 for free from the last seven days, or choose from the available archives. Again, DRM only lets you watch the downloaded programs for up to 30 days. They also offer paid content, both television programs (including US imports such as Lost and Ugly Betty) and films, from 99p.
Be prepared for long download times although the actual video quality is very good. The application is sluggish on lower spec machines which may result in slow adoption; another problem may be the way in which the network actually serves the programs. It uses Kontiki, a peer-to-peer platform, to distribute video, which means that even when you are not using the 4oD application, your computer may still be serving files to others, which some security- and bandwidth-conscious users may dislike. It is also limited to running only on Windows XP systems with Internet Explorer and Windows Media player, so once again Apple Mac and open source fans will be left out in the cold.
Channel 4 too offers streaming through a browser-embedded Media Player, for which you have to register (to make sure you’re a UK resident presumably) but the quality is quite good, even at full screen.
Five has always been the black sheep of the UK TV industry. Their content has never really been on the same par as that of the other networks and their “fivedownload” service isn’t much better. It seems the only programs they offer are Grey’s Anatomy and CSI (three flavours: CSI, CSI:Miami and CSI:NY) and it’s a pay service. With iTunes possibly offering a similar feature soon (these shows are available in the US store so they may come to the UK too) I don’t really see that Five’s application will have much of a future unless they improve and increase the available content.
Sky offers their “Sky Anytime” feature, which uses Kontiki, similar to Channel 4′s 4oD. To use Sky Anytime you need to register on Sky’s website, and then download the Sky Anytime application (one again, PC-only). After installation, you log in as expected and the first thing that hits you is how slick the application is. It’s responsive, looks good and has a large amount of content. I’m not a Sky customer so I was limited to what programs I could download, but TV subscriptions to entertainment, movies and sports packages unlocks similar content on Sky Anytime.
Its worth noting that Sky also let users program their Sky+ box over the net.
The major UK TV networks are making good ground with TV on the net. Of the dedicated applications on offer, Sky’s seem to be the best overall (at the moment) with its clean look, and responsive and intuitive interface. The range of content across the board is growing, with Channel 4 and the BBC ahead — and as advertising and other revenue streams for internet TV are realized, the content from commercial networks will likely increase in quantity, as market forces demand it.
All of the UK networks employ techniques to prevent non-UK viewers from accessing their Internet TV offerings, such as geo-blocking, where the user’s IP address is used to establish their location. This is, in-part, a world-wide licensing issue (which in the BBC’s case is made more complicated by its state-funding), but also protects potential revenue from overseas sales. However, with many popular UK programs appearing illegally online, and the fact that geo-blocking can be circumvented — moving forward, I think we’re likely to see the networks take a more global approach to Internet TV programming, especially with regards to older content.
As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that users can program their Sky+ box (the company’s own DVR offering) over the internet and via a mobile phone. The next logical step would be to allow users to stream programs recorded on their Sky+ box (or any other DVR) over the net, similar to a Slingbox. This would add another dimension to Internet TV; you could be working away in another part of the country, or on holiday abroad, and with a decent broadband connection you can access content that you’ve previously recorded.
This is an exciting time for Internet TV, and in particular I hope that the iPlayer lives up to my expectations. I’m fairly convinced that the BBC is moving in the right direction and will push the boundaries of Internet TV, not only in the UK but also worldwide.
[Ed. Next up, Ryan will be reviewing the BBC's iPlayer, once it's released this Friday.]