The standard BBC iPlayer is now being made available on Virgin Media, BT Vision and other network connected television devices and displays. That sounds like good news for viewers, but the dedicated BBC iPlayer user interface is now disconnected from these platforms. Consequently the user experience on the new Virgin Media TiVo digital video recorder is completely broken when it comes to viewing BBC programmes on demand.
The Virgin Media cable television platform currently accounts for around a fifth of all television requests for the BBC iPlayer. A year ago it represented nearly a third of requests, but other online usage has more than doubled over that period. Until very recently, the BBCi Player branded service on Virgin Media was delivered only as conventional video on demand through a rather clunky menu system.
Virgin Media has now formally launched its new TiVo digital video recorder, which supports the Flash-based BBC iPlayer, delivered over the internet. This is accessible as an application through the apps and games menu, or also currently by pressing the red button on a BBC channel.
Although more BBC programmes are available on demand in this way, in line with other connected devices, it is not currently possible to catch-up on a previously transmitted show through the new electronic programme guide on Virgin Media. It can only be viewed within the standard BBC iPlayer, where normal remote control features, like the pause button, do not work in the same way. As a result, the user experience on the new Virgin Media boxes is far from coherent and far from what one might expect from TiVo.
The BBC iPlayer is also being rolled out on BT Vision — on channel 990. It is being delivered using the Microsoft Mediaroom Presentation Framework, which is based on .NET and delivered using web protocols. This application differs from the standard HTML or Flash versions of the BBC iPlayer and has been built by Pushbutton, the specialist interactive television development company. Once complete by the end of June the more limited “legacy” replay service will be discontinued on the BT Vision platform.
The BBC is also making available a version of the BBC iPlayer in MHEG-5, accessible to connected televisions and set-top boxes that conform to the DTG D-Book 6.2.1 or later. This looks very different to the web-based applications, being constrained by the more limited capabilities of that environment. Again, it is a separate application, rather than being integrated within the overall television experience.
This means that the BBC can control the user experience of the BBC iPlayer across different connected television platforms, rather than leaving it up to the implementation of other platform operators and consumer electronics companies. In theory, that should be a good thing for television licence payers, by ensuring a more consistent experience across different devices. In practice, there are inevitable differences in capabilities and it means the BBC iPlayer user experience is disconnected from these platforms, rather than integrated within their electronic programme guides and overall viewing environment. It may be good for BBC branding and promotion, but it may make little sense to viewers.
This approach is consistent with the draft on-demand syndication policy that the BBC has proposed for approval by its Trust. This essentially stipulates that BBC programmes should only be made available on demand through the BBC iPlayer, based on a number of standard versions to be provided by the BBC.
This has the effect of bypassing the dedicated services of third-party products or platform operators, so neutralizing any advantage they may have in delivering integrated video-on-demand services.
To some it seems that the BBC has an ideological opposition to pay-television operators and must therefore control the provision of its programmes on their platforms.
Sky has criticized the proposed policy as “bizarre”. Over ten million homes that subscribe to Sky are unable to access BBC programmes on demand through that platform because the operator believes that it should be able to present them through its electronic programme guide and the BBC is equally insistent that it should control the user experience.
Perversely, by limiting on-demand access to programmes on pay-television platforms while promoting them in free to view environments, the BBC may ultimately accelerate the decline in its overall share of viewing. Like it or not, around half the homes in the country now subscribe to pay-television services.
BARB research shows that while the BBC was by far the dominant British broadcaster, its overall share of viewing fell from 38% in 2001 to 33% in 2010, against a drop in ITV audience share from 27% to 23%, while Channel 4 and 5 actually gained slightly through their additional digital channels.
Another apparently unintended consequence of the proposed on-demand syndication policy is that YouView, the joint venture hybrid television platform in which the BBC is an equal shareholder, will legally only be able to offer BBC programmes on demand on equivalent terms, otherwise the BBC risks challenge under competition law.
That means a BBC on-demand listing in the YouView electronic programme guide will have to link to the BBC iPlayer, where the user experience will be similar to other connected television platforms. This rather negates the rationale for creating YouView in the first place.
It is clearly desirable that a generic BBC iPlayer can ensure that public service programmes will always be available on demand through as many devices and displays as possible.
That would be acceptable if the BBC did not insist on restricting access to certain devices through the use of various authentication techniques, including client certificates. The argument for this may be the need to protect programmes from unauthorized distribution, although they have already been transmitted previously at higher quality without encryption. The real anxiety is about preserving the BBC brand and preventing disintermediation by others.
Therein lies the issue that faces all broadcasters making their programmes available on demand. In the past, they simply transmitted their programmes to any compatible receiver. They now feel they need to control the user experience when programmes are delivered on demand. In some part this is due to the concerns of rights holders but it is also down to concern from broadcasters about losing their traditional gatekeeper role and the ambition of others to assert their own control.
This is symptomatic of a struggle between those that are in nominal control of the programming of traditional channels and those responsible for exciting new distribution technologies.
The BBC is eagerly embracing product management to control the delivery of its services and how they presented on any particular platform. Quite why the BBC should feel the need to “certify” particular displays devices and displays on which people are allowed to watch its programmes is unclear. It is rather like demanding to determine the design of television remote controls, which it would no doubt insist on if it could.
For the moment, at least, the vast majority of television viewing is channel associated. While around 90 million video views a month on BBC iPlayer may sound impressive, it represents a very small proportion of all BBC viewing.
Those in control of conventional channels would do well to ensure that as viewers embrace new ways of watching they do not lose sight of the simplicity of the traditional television experience.
Rather than promoting the distinct BBC iPlayer interface on Virgin Media, the BBC should surely be focused on ensuring that the user experience on such platforms is as well integrated as possible with its current channels in order to promote the viewing of their programmes and the preservation of their audience share.