Five UK Internet TV offerings compared

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.

BBC

BBC iPlayerThe 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

ITV Internet TVITV 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/More4/E4

Channel 4 OD On demand Internet TVChannel 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

Channel five Internet TVFive 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

Sky anytime Internet TVSky 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.

Conclusion

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.]

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

27 Responses to “Five UK Internet TV offerings compared”

  1. dpomic says:

    What about radio?

    The BBC iPlayer has been promoted as replacing the BBC Radio Player and their other Players. But, seems no radio is included initially. And, eventual inclusion of other audio players will get them under the roof, but not integrated into one player or even one audio player.

    And, what about personalisation–presets, interests, playlists, email sharing–seems none?

    RadioCentrePlayer (and Radeo Internet Player) includes all BBC Radio and TV Clips (and Film Network) and rest of world. Works with MS Windows and Mac OS; IE, Firefox, and Safari browsers; Windows Media, Real, and QuickTime players. Web-based, streaming. Free and easy. Now.

  2. Ryan Jarrett says:

    Dpomic, you are right, there will be no radio player built into the iPlayer on launch but it will be included soon. And as far as I’m aware the Radio Player will still be available after it is integrated into iPlayer.

    I’m not suggesting the iPlayer will be the best way to watch TV on the net, just critiquing what is (or will be) available. There may be more features in the final launch release than is in the current Beta than have been publicised so maybe on Friday we can debate the features missing from the iPlayer!

  3. Stefan says:

    There’re BBC fans outside the uk also. What do they get? BBC world news service and that’s it. We want the good stuff also. Why can’t we get it?

  4. martin says:

    iPlayer also uses Kontiki

  5. Ben says:

    I emailed Channel 4 about the Windows only situation, and they sent me a stock reply, cut-ant-pasted from their website about Apple not licensing their DRM to anyone, so they couldn’t serve content to Macs. It’s disappointing, but actually now I’m not so sure about 4OD. Looking at the software, it seems that it stores downloaded programmes, and then uses your machine as a node to allow other users to download the content from you as a peer-to-peer system, which isn’t mentioned.

    http://therantman.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/4od-is-utter-rubbish/

    Also, I filled in the BBC survey about TV on demand, and as a Linux and Mac OS X user; I made the point that the BBC should be platform agnostic, as we are all license payers.

    Seems that the first consideration every time is DRM – which again proves that it is *not* in the end-users’ best interests.

  6. Keep in mind that the Sky+ box’s connection to the internet is probably a very low bps system, maybe even as low as 28k bps dialup-style…

  7. Niko GTA says:

    Let’s do a quick overview, the majority of those censor any non-Uk citizens from watching it. What if you’re an ex-pat or a foreign national with citizenship.. that aside, there’s the fact that they’re using hideous DRM technology to prevent people from pulling the video off the IPTV stream. Geographic limitations and DRM are not a viable way to offer iptv to consumers.

    So the options are slim, but you can still catch some of these TV offerings like BBC elsewhere.

    http://www.joost.com – watch bbc new videos
    http://www.freetube.us.tc – watch BBC, Sky and ITV live
    http://www.tv-links.co.uk/1/ – catch shows like British shows like coupling, office
    http://www.peekvids.com – mirror of tv shows
    http://www.thepiratebay.org/shows/ – torrents for tv shows (higher quality then any of the above)

  8. Steve O'Hear (editor) says:

    @Ben

    There must be a platform agnostic DRM out there. I believe Jaman, which offers paid-for downloads, is Mac and PC compatible, for example. Apple not licensing its DRM is only relevant to any discussion around the iPod/iPhone. So, yes, it’s poor play by Channel4, BBC and the rest, who’ve all bought into Microsoft’s Windows Media solution.

  9. I think that for the people who live in the UK the best IPTV application so far is Zattoo – you can watch BBC1-5 + News, Sky News and couple of european channels as well. The application is slick and quality good.

    http://zattoo.com/

  10. subcorpus says:

    looking forward for the day when these will be available outside UK …

  11. Hob Monday says:

    Its the content suppliers/owners that insist on the DRM standards and license their output to the broadcasters for the UK market only. Without enforcing these restrictions the broadcasters couldn’t provide the service within the terms of their license. Now there is an argument than the Beeb also owns a lot of its content and so could be more generous than say Sky or Channel 4 who license most of their ouput from external production sources but since the license payers are entierly UK based it would seem a little unfair if the rest of the world could get Auntie’s output free.

  12. OSS says:

    The major problem I have with all of the services is that the resolution/bitrate they use is simply too low. Often the programs aren’t even viewable in full screen because they appear too pixelated.

    As Niko pointed out, it is far easier to download a “pirated” copy of the programme. They often have higher resolution and higher bitrate.

  13. The Rant Man says:

    Interesting article. This serves to illustrate that the technology is still immature.

    To miss out Linux users is unforgivable and ultimately will be an expensive mistake. If the current trend of OEM manufacturers selling Linux based PC’s as an alternative to Windoze continues, the revolution really is coming. Cross platform is a must these days.

    The programmes aren’t of broadcast quality, far from it. You must install peer to peer software, hidden files and folders that many PC users will know nothing about and DRM. It is sneaky and intrusive.

    The Rant Man

  14. Pete White says:

    Nice roundup – I will have to give Sky Anytime a go, i’ve been pretty disappointed with 4OD so far with its slow interface and annoying expiration times.

  15. dpomic says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for your response. Have you tried Radeo Internet Player (or UK preferenced RadioCentre Player) yet?

    The organisation by Stations, Shows and Episodes and the personalisation—presets, interests, playlists, histories, share and news emails—makes it much easier to find, play, and manage your preferences across the BBC (and the rest of the world). I think far beyond the BBC visible horizon.

    Streaming is the easy alternative for those that don’t want the hassles, risks and costs of download and p2p.

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

    Best,
    DP

  16. Alecu says:

    Watch over 800 free Live TV’s channels with sport, movies, news, music, fashion, entertainment, adult content and many more… at http://www.TVchannelsFREE.com

  17. liam says:

    Hi could any1 give me a website that i can watch all uk channels. like bb1, itv and channel etc. thanks.

    Could you write back with 1.

  18. jim says:

    This site is pretty cool. It has a good selection of free TV and Video from around the world.

  19. Nicola says:

    It’s only a matter of time before all television is on the internet and available worldwide, surely this can be the only way to combat video piracy and downloading sites?

  20. bry says:

    Cool review of UK sites. We in the US also watch quite a bit of BBC . http://www.fantasy-tv.com has a lot of channels for free including UK ones

  21. ahmed says:

    internet tv is a very good option. u can multitask using this i.e browse nd watch tv at the same time. cool comparisons

  22. tvleri says:

    Tvler canlıtv tv izle online tvler tüm tvler haber muzik spor kanal kanallar program programlar

  23. David says:

    One solid way to access BBC’s iplayer and other blocked online content is via a uk vpn account.
    All your traffic gets tunneled through that vpn and you will not appear non-uk based anymore.

    You can then try getting a vpn acount to be able to watch bbc outside the uk .

  24. Watch-man says:

    Very good list of free site for watch tv online, thanks !

    I also use http://www.yourtvonline.net for watch uk channels from canada

  25. I watch online tv on http://tvipe.com
    Talked to their admin recently – he is in process of creating video on demand category, so soon we will be able to watch movies online.

  26. I watch online tv on http://tvipe.com
    Talked to their admin recently – he is in process of creating video on demand category, so soon we will be able to watch movies online.

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