I used the BBC iPlayer for the first time yesterday so I decided I’d share my thoughts on that and as it turns out a few other things with regards to on demand TV.

Firstly I must make the point that I have the a home made Personal Video Recorder (PVR, using GB-PVR) which I had and used for nearly 3 years and a Sky+ box. Both of these have really helped me detach from being locked into the TV schedule and digital recordings are much more liberating than VCR’s ever were. I rarely use my PVR anymore, only as a DVD player and to watch older recorded/downloaded programs & films - but it would be the perfect machine for any on demand TV software, in my opinion.

This detachment from the TV schedule tied in with me missing adverts/teasers/trailers etc. sometimes means I miss a programme that I previously might have watched - but hey hum it’s not life or death. However I recently caught the last few minutes of the latest Louis Theroux programme so I decided I’d try and watch that with the iPlayer.

Unfortunately my ISP seems to limit my bandwidth from dead on 5:00pm every day (as I work from home I can see this) so streaming the video wasn’t going to work, as and an aside this is something I should take up with my ISP - I’m paying for 8Mbits so it should be enough. So I decided to download the programme during the day so we could watch it at night, this required me installing the iPlayer software (from within IE only) and then using that software to download the programme, which only took a few minutes.

The file was saved to a folder of my specification (but without a meaningful name) along with a load of other videos which seem to be channel idents.

So we sat down last night to watch the video, but GB-PVR wouldn’t play the file, so I had to open it via the iPlayer. This caused Windows Media Player to upgrade some DRM software (twice as it didn’t work the first time). Once it started playing it was very sluggish and completely un-watchable, for those who think my PVR is slow, it isn’t - it has no un-necessary software installed and plays back any video format (except HD which I haven’t tried) without any problems at all. I then tried GB-PVR again, now that Windows Media Player had updated its DRM there is no reason as far as I’m aware that GB-PVR couldn’t play it, but it still couldn’t.

I tried in WMP directly and it played fine, if you ignore the fact I could no longer control it via my remote, as I would have been able to if it played in GB-PVR.

The video was decent quality and downloaded quickly, but you can say the same for anything from a torrent these days. I had to make sure that I watched the video (or at least downloaded it) this week as the programme was only available for 7 days via the iPlayer, so it would have sucked if someone recommended the programme to me in a couple of weeks.

So that over with lets look at the good, bad and the potentially brilliant.

My issues with the iPlayer:

  • The fact that it didn’t have a meaningful name didn’t matter in that instance, but if I had a few more videos downloaded the only way to identify them would be to open it via the iPlayer or try each one.
  • Using the iPlayer software caused playback to be sluggish and totally un-watchable.
  • Use of DRM, plain and simple I’m not a DRM fan. I personally see it as completely pointless for something that is distributed free over the airwaves (excluding the licence fee) if I had recorded it on Video, PVR, Sky+ etc. I could save it for as long as I wanted, with DRM I can’t.
  • Extra software download, why?
  • Limited platform support.

Plus points for the iPlayer:

  • Free

Was it worth the effort?

In future if I miss something like this, I’ll wait until it’s repeated, if there are no repeats scheduled then I’d try the torrent networks first and my last option would be the iPlayer.

The issues with video on demand in general.

I don’t really think it’s the BBC’s fault, everyone is currently tied up with this DRM, “my content not your content” nonsense and they are all still blundering about trying to figure out the right way to do it.

As I see it in the short to medium term we’ll end up in an absolutely horrible situation. Each company will want to control the distribution of their programming as much as possible so we’ll end up with each company (or channel) having their own system for video on demand. Without thinking about it I already know of at least 4 separate ones - BBC iPlayer, Channel 4’s 4 on demand, Sky something or other, iTunes.

These all come with their own implementations, software and limitations, usually in how long you have to get the programme, what programmes are available, where you can play them, how long you have to watch the program (of course enforced by the evil DRM), etc. etc.

I could avoid all of this, and get access to a wider range of programmes using something like torrents, so why would I want to move from that right now?

In an ideal world

A few months back I got a glimpse at the future and I liked it (a caveat of “I had had a few beers” applies here, so it may or may not have been the future).

Me and a friend were sitting around having a few beers and we managed to listen to pretty much any music we wanted, from a combination of my music collection, Pandora and Seeqpod and we were able to watch quite a lot of things that we wanted to watch (mainly clips of comedy programmes) using YouTube on my PVR.

It was good, it was liberating and it was something I would have been willing to pay for. I want a system where I can sit down and say “right I want to watch a ‘Kids in the Hall’ episode” or “ I want to watch ‘Happy Gilmore’” and get access to it instantaneously without jumping through hoops. Again, I would be willing to pay for that.

But I would only be willing to pay if:

  • The system worked easily.
  • As much content as possible was available through the one system, my above examples would require an almost TV and Movie archive system. I don’t want 12 boxes attached to my TV or 150 programs installed on my computer. I don’t mind if different companies want to tackle the problem and provide their own solutions as long as as much content as possible is available on them all we could all get along fine.
  • The price was fair, I’m talking 50p or less per 30 minute programme, I would accept advertising in programmes & before movies – not during, that’s never how they were intended to be presented. In an ideal situation advertising would be only applied to newer programmes and reduce to nothing as the programme aged.
  • I also don’t want to pay every time I view it either, for instance I must have watched Happy Gilmore 20 times (at least) on DVD, if I were doing that via an on-demand video I’d expect to pay for the first couple of viewings and then have either a massively reduced cost for further viewing or no cost at all.
  • I could access the media from any of my devices, computers (regardless of OS), portable devices etc. etc.

The biggest step to having a system like this would of course be getting as much of the old content in place and accessible, this will have the greatest technical and commercial hurdles to overcome. I’d be willing to accept that older content were not instantly accessible as long as I could give a short period of notice for old content I wished to view which would then be downloaded or made available at a later time (within a couple of days at most).

There has been a lot of talk recently about the HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray “format wars” but physical media is on it’s way out, thankfully, who wants to replace their entire DVD/CD/etc. collection every x years?
Digital and on demand access is where it will be and whoever is the first to truly crack this will be a winner and when we get to that point lets hope the writers get their fair share.