The BBC iPlayer now includes links to on-demand programmes from other broadcasters and providers. It is helpful for users but may be more beneficial to the BBC than the other online video sites to which they link. What is really required is a standard way of sharing this programme data to allow interlinking between different sites and services. MetaBroadcast has developed an open source application programming interface to do just that.
Data sharing partnerships now allow users to view listings and search for programmes from ITV, Channel 4, S4C, Five, SeeSaw and MSN directly through the BBC iPlayer web site. Links from third-party programmes lead to the relevant partner site where they can be played.
Any provider that holds the relevant rights to a programme that has previously been broadcast on a channel regulated by Ofcom can apply to become a BBC iPlayer partner. That does not necessarily mean they will be accepted. No doubt adult channels need not apply.
“Given the popularity of BBC iPlayer, we hope this feature will support fellow broadcasters and boost the overall uptake of video on demand,” wrote Paul Clark of BBC Future Media and Technology. “Most importantly, by helping audiences uncover great digital services that exist elsewhere on the web, we believe we’re performing an important public service.”
If anything, it shows how many programmes from other broadcasters are still not available online.
The long-awaited development may result in increased usage of the online video services of other broadcasters, but it will also serve to consolidate the position of the BBC iPlayer a primary destination.
There is no indication that the data sharing partnerships with other providers are reciprocal, or indeed whether the metadata is available as a feed to third party developers and aggregators.
Project Kangaroo, a previous and more ambitious attempt to provide an online video aggregation service, in a proposed joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five, was blocked by the Competition Commission. The platform was subsequently acquired by Arqiva and launched as SeeSaw, which is now one of the metadata partners for iPlayer.
Project Marquee, a subsequent attempt to share the iPlayer with the broadcasters that would have been involved with Project Kangaroo, was then blocked by the BBC Trust which was unconvinced of the value to licence fee payers.
Project Canvas, now known as YouView, aims to provide a platform with a consistent user interface across the online video services from the same broadcasters. The challenges faced by YouView have been well documented and the launch has now been postponed until 2012.
Meanwhile, the BBC Trust has proposed that BBC television programmes should only be made available through the BBC iPlayer, which rather defeats the objective of creating a consistent user experience through YouView.
The latest metadata sharing initiative might be seen as a way in which centralised search and listings can be linked to federated and separately branded playback environments. This is a much simpler approach that does not require joint venture projects with the attendant corporate politics and regulatory complications. Arguably it is all that Projects Kangaroo, Marquee or Canvas really required in the first place.
Links form the fundamental fabric of the web and the history of online innovation has consistently shown the benefits of allowing open linking and providing open application programming interfaces to allow the integration of otherwise separate services.
Users might reasonably expect to be able to search for their favourite programme in their favourite search engine and be offered the option of watching the programme.
Typing Coronation Street — the name of the most popular television programme in Britain — into Google is currently likely to lead to a programme web site, from where it may be possible to click through several links to watch the most recent episode of the continuing drama serial.
Searching for Coronation Street in the BBC iPlayer returns a number of programmes that may feature actors from the soap opera, but now also includes links to recent episodes under programmes from other providers, complete with preview images and the first words of the synopsis.
Robin Pembroke, the managing director of ITV.com, said the aim was to make ITV programmes easily accessible. “We know that ITV shows are some of the most popular and searched-for TV content on the web and we are delighted that viewers will now be able to be directed to our content on ITV Player via BBC iPlayer.”
How far ITV will benefit is yet to be seen. ITV, Channel Four and Five collectively receive only a fraction of the hundred million online video views a month that BBC iPlayer now delivers. The BBC may be the main beneficiary if it becomes the way in which users search for online programmes.
A genuinely equitable approach would be to make the pooled metadata available to partners and third parties to enable the development of competitive products and services.
A company that has been involved in feeding some of the link data into the BBC iPlayer aims to do just that. Metabroadcast has developed Atlas, an audio and video index with an open source application programming interface that gathers and stores metadata that can be accessed through a query interface. The index now has data from several British broadcasters, and a number of other online video services.
Metabroadcast is also involved in the soon to launch UK Radioplayer project. This is an initiative to provide a consistent online player for radio stations across the United Kingdom, including public service, commercial, community and student stations.
Metabroadcast was founded in 2007 by Chris Jackson, a former head of strategy at the BBC and a McKinsey consultant. He is a keen proponent of affiliation through data aggregation.
“The basis of TV and radio is that each channel presents itself to the audience in a single, consistent form,” he writes. “On more complex platforms, like digital cable and satellite, metadata is aggregated together, so that users can browse schedules and lists of programmes, or sometimes search for a show. Users don’t have to do anything different to discover and watch content on a new channel. This simple experience has rarely been replicated online.”
“Many people feel there is a strong logic for a broadcaster to maintain a siloed site containing only their own content, and to refuse content syndication opportunities,” he continues. “But the web is rather good at sharing information around, and users like it too — maybe because they’re used to it on existing platforms. Increasingly, broadcasters and publishers are missing opportunities if they don’t include other people’s content on their site.”
That lesson may have been learnt by the BBC, but it remains to be seen whether that leaves a role for SeeSaw or YouView, or simply opens the door to search engines like Google.