Andrew Walmsley on digital: BBC iPlayer gets off to crawling start
The long-awaited BBC iPlayer is to get its beta launch on 27 July. Knocking around in one form or another for about four years, and beset by rights and regulatory troubles, the iPlayer is joining a market that looks very different to the environment at the time of its conception.
The iPlayer is a program for Windows PCs (bad luck, Vista and Mac users) that allows the viewer to watch BBC TV shows from the past seven days. Programmes are downloaded to the user's PC, so the picture quality is good, and they can be transferred onto a portable device such as video iPod or phone to watch on the go. Streaming, which allows the user to watch immediately, without waiting for the download, will follow in the full roll-out, planned for the autumn.
Last year, the morning after I had installed the software on my laptop, I got stuck on the District Line with nothing to read and no phone signal. So I watched an episode of Horizon on my laptop. During the few weeks I had the trial system, I came to love it - my kids watched TV on long car journeys, and it became pretty much the only TV I watched.
But Sky's Anytime TV by PC service went live last year, Channel 4 launched 4OD last December, and even ITV expects to debut its 30-day catch-up and streaming service soon, leaving poor old Auntie reduced to announcing for the umpteenth time that it's launching soon too.
The BBC has gone from market leader to market laggard, bogged down by interminable wranglings over whether it should be allowed to launch the platform, together with problems in securing the agreement of the independent production companies that control the ongoing rights for the programming that will comprise the service's content.
Is there still a market for the iPlayer, or is the BBC too late? Two key issues will determine whether the platform will have a chance. First, the much-derided Digital Rights Management (DRM). Officially, such software protects the copyright holder by preventing copying or sharing of content by users - in the case of iPlayer, effectively erasing any programme a user has downloaded after 30 days. While this is an inconvenience to the average user, often these systems are nothing more than a speed bump to the technically competent. Last year, one broadcaster's service was temporarily suspended after software was released that enabled Microsoft's DRM to be circumvented by users. It issued a fix, but within three days it too had been nobbled; the game of tag continues.
The problem is that the deals struck by the BBC mean producers don't sell it programmes; they license them for limited use. If the BBC wants to buy the rights, it's going to take money, meaning that overall, fewer programmes can be acquired for a given level of investment.
Perhaps a more justified gripe is the volume of software users are expected to download. C4, the BBC and Sky all use different systems. This lack of interoperability will hold back the development of the platform. With the exception of Sky, which is developing this as part of its pay-TV portfolio, control of the platform isn't a particular competitive advantage, so we may see co-operation between broadcasters, especially when faced with the BBC's considerable marketing muscle.
Perhaps a bigger problem than either of these is the BBC's own bureaucracy. Viewers may welcome the new service, and with a reputed 19m visitors a month to the BBC website, there is clearly an appetite online. But unless Auntie can get her skates on, the world will have moved on. The digital world moves at warp-speed, and taking four years to get to market is simply not going to cut it.
- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 SECONDS ON ... THE DISTRICT LINE
- The first stage of the District Line was opened in 1868.
- Between 1910 and 1939, the line's eastbound services ran as far as Southend-on-Sea in Essex. Today, they terminate at Upminster.
- The District Line is 64km (40 miles) long and serves 60 stations At its Western end, it splits into five branches: Richmond, Ealing Broadway, Wimbledon, Edgware Road and Kensington Olympia. To travel from Ealing Broadway - its Western-most station - to Upminster takes about 90 minutes.
- Walford Tube station, which features in EastEnders, is ostensibly on the District Line.
- At peak times, the line has 74-76 trains running on it.
- Areas of note close to District Line stations include the Tower of London (Tower Hill), West Ham United's stadium (Upton Park) and the Victoria and Albert and Science Museums (South Kensington).
This article was first published on Marketing
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