Tuesday, 27 March 2007

BBC iPlayer: free TV, radio programme downloads on demand - have your say, deadline 5pm Wednesday 28 March

Note: for a first look at the BBC iPlayer, which I'm currently trialling, with screenshots and videos, see this post.

It's now well known that the BBC plan to introduce, probably in late May 2007, new "BBC iPlayer" (formerly MyBBCPlayer or BBC iMP) on demand services more in keeping with this age of increasing digital convergence, to allow users to:
  • "7-day" catch-up TV - catch up on missed BBC TV programmes (aka "retrospective scheduling") and back episodes of certain series even where broadcast more than 7 days ago ("series stacking") via :
  • non-DRM podcasts - download BBC radio programs, freely playable on iPods or other MP3 players and transferrable without restriction (but excluding classical music, full book readings, and commercial full track music); and
  • internet simulcast TV - watch BBC programs streamed live (multicast) over the Net via computer, mobile phone or PDA etc e.g. in a wi-fi café.
The point of this post is to flag (for those who haven't already commented) that consumers and UK licence fee payers do have a say in the final shape of the new services - but comments must be in before the deadline of 5pm GMT this Wednesday 28 March i.e. tomorrow.

The BBC Trust (formerly BBC Governors) are consulting publicly on plans by the Beeb's management to introduce video on demand (VOD) and other services more in keeping with the digital age, mostly via the Net. Provisionally they've decided to give them the go ahead - but in some ways they want to change Auntie's proposals. They must consider all views, even if they decide not to act on them. So it's worth us licence fee payers weighing in on a couple of proposals which aren't as consumer-friendly as they could be. The BBC Trust must make their final decision by 2 May 2007 and the services will launch soon after, probably in late May.

I've been working on an overview of the proposals, but just haven't had time to get it all done, so I'm putting up this post now because of the consultation deadline. I hope to finish it after work tonight so please check back (late!) if you're interested.

How to comment to the BBC Trust

If you want to have your say, you can do so before 5pm on Wednesday 28 March by:
You can refer to the main consultation/provisional conclusions and public value assessment (text-only versions of both available), market impact assessment by UK communications regulator Ofcom and (if you've the time and interest) mountains of other supporting evidence considered by the BBC Trust in reaching their provisional conclusions.

Below are my own thoughts on some of the consultation questions (here, click the Questions tab to see the form). Your points may of course be different, but whatever your thoughts, please consider commenting (encourager of consumer activism that I am!) - you've a chance to put your views across to the BBC Trust if you get them in quickly.

[Updates since made to answers are in italics]

Q1 and Q2 - generally yes, I think the proposals are overall a great idea and the BBC should be investing as a priority in on demand services, it's not before time too, but I don't agree with all the changes proposed by the BBC Trust.

Q3 30-day storage window (see further below) - OK, but could be shorter if the original download window was increased from 7 days to 14 days or more, which I think is the better approach. 7 days is way too short if you're on holiday etc.

Q4 series stacking (see below) would be useful, but I'd like that extended to more series not just the types they say (see below). And there definitely shouldn't be any limitation on the number of episodes of a series made available for catch-up or the length of time for which they can be viewed.

Q5 platform - very important that non-Microsoft users should have access to the new services e.g. Mac and Linux users.

Q6 book readings - yes the BBC should be allowed to offer book readings as non-DRM audio downloads. Blind users would particularly benefit from that and they should not be forgotten. See answer to question 12 about "free" not necessarily impacting the commercial market.

Q7 classical music - I think a blanket ban on non-DRM podcasts of classical music is wrong. Ideally there shouldn't be a restriction, or if it's felt necessary for market impact reasons to limit classical music, I think at least that classical music which is by new composers or which is rarely-heard should be allowed to be freely downloadable in order to help increase exposure. Same point about question 12.

Q8 parental control - it may seem good in principle to introduce some means of parental control mechanism, but I'm cynical and think that many children will be able to get around that easily. I think it's fundamentally down to parents bringing up their kids sensibly, and if they do that no mechanism should be needed; if they don't, any mechanism will no doubt be subverted anyway!

Q9 non-BBC content - as I'm in favour of consumer choice yes I'd like to be able to access non-BBC content from the BBC, but it should be clearly marked as non-BBC e.g. in a separate subsection with clear titles in the title bar. (I'm not sure what they mean about offering that content "on" the BBC website - surely just linking to other VOD services would not be a problem. Do they mean, offer non-BBC content for download via iPlayer?)

Q10 non-BBC services - again as I'm in favour of consumer choice I think it would be good if BBC content was available via other services like multi-channel providers or net downloading services, but only if the BBC (and licence fee payers) get paid adequately for it by those providers, who'll no doubt be able to profit from having BBC content accessible via their services.

Q11 licence revisions - would be fine if they incorporated the changes I'd personally like about increasing the initial download window time, allowing audio books and classical music etc!

Q12 other issues:

First, free isn't always "free" - when assessing market impact, remember that providing free services won't necessarily prejudice commercial providers. A similar argument's been made about MP3 downloads in the past, and I think it's a valid point: people sometimes download free material because they don't have the resources (e.g. students) or are too cheap (e.g. me!) to pay for it, and if it wasn't free they simply wouldn't get it at all (as opposed to buying it from the commercial provider instead); so making something free won't necessarily hurt sales or affect the bottom line of commercial suppliers as hard as they'd like to make out. I've certainly used products or services which were free or open source, which I wouldn't use at all if I actually had to fork out hard cash for them. Plus, free downloads help to publicise material and increase exposure and may lead to people paying for further material, e.g. Arctic Monkeys.

Second, the use of home hubs and the like (particularly wireless ones) by consumers will increase and in my opinion soon take off in earnest, fuelled by the availability of VOD not only via iPlayer but from other broadcasters like Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV. Most people prefer to watch video material on a TV set, not a PC monitor screen. It's down to:
  • visual quality (picture/screen size and quality) and
  • sociability (TV watching is often a social or family activity: talking about how hot that actor/,actress is, how cool that goal/jacket).
The BBC needs to ensure that iPlayer will be as home hub friendly as possibly, though I appreciate they're not in the business of producing suitable hardware themselves. If the BBC want to extend audience reach, it's important that high quality video suitable for viewing on a bigger TV screen is available and that they make iPlayer as compatible as possible with home hubs and non-"all in one" or multifunction products which may be less sophisticated, variously known as digital media receivers or digital multimedia receivers, digital media adapters (DMA), etc - not to mention the much heralded Slingcatcher, Apple iTV and so on. Which may be difficult with the DRM, but...

Third, usability as well as accessibility. I took part in the BBC iMP trials and I found the precursor to iPlayer not as easy or intuitive to use as it should be. It should support full keyboard shortcuts and standard Windows (or Mac etc) controls and layout. The BBC Trust do say iPlayer "should also provide adequate access for those with sensory, cognitive or physical impairments within a reasonable timescale". But if they want to extend the BBC's "audience reach", they should insist that the iPlayer be much more user-friendly generally (even to those without disabilities) than iMP was.

Finally, bookmarking in advance (to schedule a download in advance of its broadcast) was dropped by the BBC, and the BBC Trust seem to think it would need another round of assessments if they wanted to introduce it, but I think it should have been a feature of iPlayer. Why restrict people to being able to download only after the broadcast, why can't they use the EPG to book in advance of transmission when they want to download something? (This post sets out the arguments very well.)

Bookmarking would also help improve reach and address service quality issues i.e. concerns about download speeds and time delays, if users can book in advance to download something in the background. I'm not sure bookmarking would affect the market for VCRs and PVRs, but if it did wouldn't those manufacturers be able to move into producing home hubs and DMAs instead if they thought they'd lose revenue from PVRs? It's a question of keeping up with the times and markets have to keep up with changes in consumer viewing patterns too. Wouldn't it be indeed artificial to shield VCR manufacturers from those changes by disallowing bookmarking?


Catchup TV over the Internet - what does "7-day" catchup mean?

Effectively, catchup internet TV is the next step on from the BBC iMP or MyBBCPlayer - see my posts on the 2005-2006 BBC iMP trials, which I took part in (key issues, tips and tricks, initial views).

They call it 7 day catchup but 7 days isn't really 7 days, hence the quotation marks, which the eagle-eyed will have spotted. What we'll get, borrowing from 9.4.1 of the public value assessment, is actually a succession of different windows (in total possibly 44 days to watch a programme after its broadcast):
  • 7-day download window or distribution window: after initial broadcast of a show, it's available for download only for a measly 7 days - useless if you're on holiday or very busy or just forget, and I bet people would download after 7 days if they could
  • 30-day (originally 13 weeks) catch-up window, storage window or convenience window: you must open the download at least once within thirty days after you first downloaded it, or else you'll lose access to it after the 30 days expire
  • 7 day consumption window: you then have 7 days after first opening the downloaded program to watch it in, but you can watch as often as you like in those 7 days. After those 7 days, pffft, the program disappears, becomes totally inaccessible.
All that self-destructing and automatic inaccessibility after certain time limits is done through the magic of DRM (well many might use ruder words than "magic" to describe DRM, but I'll comment no further on that here. At least some in the music industry are now wanting to get rid of DRM).

Basically digital rights management restricts how long you'll have to watch downloaded files, and also limits copying/sharing, though you can transfer and watch them on PMPs (portable media devices) like if they support DRM. Same time limits apply to watching downloads on portable devices, of course.

Series stacking

The BBC Trust want to limit this to series "where the series has a distinct run, with a beginning and an end and a clear ‘narrative arc’ or those which are defined as landmark series with exceptionally high impact. Long-running dramas, soaps, factual strands and magazine shows would not be eligible to be series stacked."

Note: for a first look at the BBC iPlayer, which I'm currently trialling, with screenshots and videos, see this post.

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