Erik Huggers - The evolution of BBC iPlayer

Wednesday 26 May 2010, 09:43

Erik Huggers Erik Huggers Director of Future Media & Technology

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Today sees one of our most popular websites enter a new phase in its life - the BBC iPlayer re-launches in public beta to become more simple, personal and connected. It's an important moment in its evolution.

New BBC iPlayer
You can find it here.

The idea for BBC iPlayer was first floated internally around seven years ago, when the web was in its relative infancy. The potential of on-demand was obvious, even if the networks, technologies and market wasn't there yet

But the potential public value of being able to offer our audiences more control (a digital VCR that you don't have to set) and the offer of better value for money (by providing more opportunities to access programmes they've missed) was huge. Some years later, on Christmas Eve 2007, the first-generation product launched.

That moment represented a turning point for the BBC, and for me personally, the most significant development to BBC Online since its launch in the late 1990s. In just two and half years BBC iPlayer has evolved to become one of our most popular websites, integral to BBC Online, and available on a very wide range of internet-connected devices.

The BBC wasn't the first mainstream media company to offer a video-on-demand service, but I do think we were the first to get it right. Some important early decisions contributed greatly to its appeal with audiences.

First generation BBC iPlayer
First, it was high-quality and simple. We needed to make access to the content itself as quick and simple as possible, which meant moving the focus from peer-to-peer downloads to streaming. This removed delays, and the need to install a client (a piece of software on your computer). Simply click and play because the vast majority of consumers already had Adobe Flash installed.

Second, it had an unrivalled content offer - no user-generated videos of cats on skateboards here. It was always distinctly BBC, understood to be the only place for BBC long-form content, and by extension a byword for quality. As good as we make the iPlayer experience; we never forget that it's the content, above and beyond the delivery, that brings people back.

Third, the proposition was made really clear to mainstream linear TV audiences. It was this clear communication of the simple proposition of "making the unmissable, unmissable" combined with integrated linear promotion, that helped video-on-demand cross over into the mainstream. And finally, we wanted to make the BBC iPlayer available on a platform neutral basis. The ability to repurpose the site for a wide range of internet-connected devices and platforms has enabled us to take the product to our audiences rather than prescribe that they access it on the PC alone.

But back in 2007, none of us were really sure about how successful the BBC iPlayer would be. Some people had doubts about take-up. Will people go for it? Do people really want to watch TV on their computers when they have a perfectly good TV for that, with dozens of channels already? Others expected a TV revolution. "It's the end of TV as we know it" - the idea that giving the power of control to audiences would wipe out linear TV and the "old fashioned" idea of scheduling.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle: we've been hugely encouraged by the reception of iPlayer, and while people clearly love greater choice, they're not ready to abandon live TV. Our schedulers are brilliant at picking the right programme for the right channel at the right time: and nothing beats the collective experience of live TV around big events, whether it's a dramatic climax in the live episode of Eastenders or the FA Cup Final..

The facts are these, only 0.4% of UK adults watch exclusively on-demand. Linear TV is going from strength-to-strength, UK research company Thinkbox revealed earlier this month that year-on-year, average viewing is up to some 30 hours a week - an increase of two and a half hours on the year before. On-demand viewing is clearly complementary.

Second generation BBC iPlayer
The BBC iPlayer saw its first major evolution in July 2008, with vastly enhanced functionality. In came the integration of live TV and radio, together with a list of the most popular programmes and contextual recommendations - based on the programme you've just watched or listened to. We launched the first download manager to aid viewing offline. A list of recently played items came too - together with a user-experience that aimed to make all this content easy to find, and later, multiple bit rates and HD quality content.

A demonstration showing BBC iPlayer to be multi-platform multi-device
Coupled with this, through 2008 and 2009, the product was repurposed and rebuilt to work on a wider range of platforms and devices - from a Windows only base, it's now on more than 40 different devices and platforms. Our aim is to make the BBC iPlayer work on pretty much any platform or device that can connect to the web, where technically possible and economically sensible, and the BBC Trust opened a public consultation on our syndication policy just yesterday.

BBC iPlayer has become recognised domestically and internationally as best in class, a pioneer in the field and a major stimulant in the overall market for on-demand services.

We've seen impressive growth in programme requests BBC iPlayer, and as the projections below (Mediatique, 2009) for video on demand show - this is a growing area across the entire media industry.

Mediatique projections showing requests for video on demand
But this is a busy and fragmented marketplace, with traditional broadcasters launching their own video on demand propositions (eg. SkyPlayer, BBC iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player, Demand Five), content aggregator sites (eg. SeeSaw, YouTube), free to air platforms (eg. Freeview, Freesat), pay TV platforms (eg. Virgin Media, BT Vision, Sky), search companies (e.g. Google TV), device manufacturers (Sony, Nokia, Samsung), mobile operators (eg. Three, Vodafone) and gaming platforms (e.g. Nintendo, Sony Playstation) all looking to offer a video-on-demand proposition of sorts to consumers.

How does the BBC iPlayer fit in to this world and remain distinctive?

As I outlined at the Guardian's Changing Media Summit in March, just after we announced our Strategy Review, BBC Online is changing.

By halving the number of top-level domains on BBC Online, reducing the overall service-licence budget by 25% by 2012, focusing on the BBC's core editorial priorities, and developing strategic online partnerships we intend to put the internet at the heart of the BBC's digital media strategy, creating a more focused BBC Online with clear boundaries. The proposals outlined in the BBC's Strategy Review are subject to public consultation by the BBC Trust.

BBC iPlayer is a core component of BBC Online, and is the first core website in the online portfolio to be upgraded since we announced Putting Quality First.

Bringing the benefits of emerging technologies to the public is in the BBC's DNA as its sixth public purpose, and the idea behind BBC iPlayer was to give audiences greater control over the programmes they enjoy, guarantee subscription-free access to BBC content in an on-demand world, and provide better value for the content they have already paid for.

In the new beta version of the product we've launched today, we've listened to the audience and responded to their desire to have greater control over their own BBC iPlayer experience: now you can have a BBC built just for you.

We've integrated the social web through innovative partnerships, which allow audiences to interact with each other around our content. And we've pulled all this functionality together in a clean and intuitive user experience.

I can't emphasise the importance of good design enough. In age of unlimited choice - our audiences need better ways to find what they are looking for, and it is this thinking that we've brought into BBC iPlayer. In addition to discovery through traditional TV listings, you can now also:

- select your favourites, delivered to you in a playlist
- see what your friends are recommending
- browse by popularity, like a top-ten programmes chart
- browse by genre and sub-genre, depending on your mood
- try what we think you'll like, based on what you tell us

Along the way you'll be able to select your favourites, to be delivered to you when they're ready.

And later in the year, we'll be linking to other video on demand providers, and launching a new feature that will allow you to chat to friends.

There's a lot more information about the functionality and technology on the BBC Internet Blog if you're interested and you can find the new BBC iPlayer here.

So we very much hope that you like the new product, and if you'd like to be involved in the beta testing we'd love to hear from you.

Erik Huggers is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    cant see the point in launching new player until sound is corrected on bbc local listen again,80k mp3 is not cd quality

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Hi, maybe your eyes are closed, but the massive heading "Radio", links to the radio content for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Is the intention to force users of the iPlayer to have a BBC ID and log into the system further down the line, or will the ability to watch always be openly available? I know that when bodies start introducing logins the temptation can be there to make it mandatory, and I'd hate to think my iPlayer viewings and listenings are being data mined.

    Also, I take issue at the phrase, "it had an unrivalled content offer - no user-generated videos of cats on skateboards here." A shaky video of a cat on a skateboard exceeds the quality of about 90% of BBC Three's output...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    How surprising that the DAB-biased, anti-Internet radio BBC has chosen to remove radio from the iPlayer home page.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    digitalradiotech: Even less of a surprise that you're moaning about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.


    Are you looking at the same iPlayer page as me, because I can see the word "Radio" written in huge letters across the top (1.6em Helvetica according to Firebug, which Firefox is rendering at 25.2px). If I were visiting the site for the first time, I'd gravitate towards that immediately if I were looking for radio streams...

    From a usability point of view it's fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.


    This is not about usability, this is an issue about use, i.e. the actual amount of radio listening that takes place via the iPlayer, and that will inevitably plummet as a result of this change because people's eyes will no longer be drawn to the radio stations' icons and programmes. It's the equivalent of moving a story off the front page of a newspaper: the number of people that would read that story will plummet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The radio pages are broken - they all open in pop-ups. If I want to open a page in a pop-up, *I* want to choose to open it in a pop-up, rather than having it forced upon me. For about the last 5 years, all decent browsers have had the ability to open pages in a new tab. Your redesign breaks this functionality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hello, I've just arrived from the future and I have to say that all of these problems with iplayer will be sorted in two years. However, there are a couple of radio stations that don't appear to be working. I couldn't find 6Music on the iplayer of 2012. Nor did there appear to be any radio output for the millions of minorities that pay their TV licence fee, such as Asians.

    Perhaps you could get the boys from IT to have a look as I can't believe that the BBC could possibly survive on the mindless rubbish I found on iplayer in two years' time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    digitalradiotech - what are you talking about? "RADIO" is immediately obvious! It makes sense to give TV and Radio their own tabs on the iPlayer homepage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Moderation test message:

    iplayer is brilliant and so is everything the BBC does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    This is still a lame way to listen to the radio compared to real or windows media. Why can't I use my pause/play button on either work or home laptop?

    Why can't I sideload music radio content? I know you will give a lame answer that the Trust won't let you, that is typical BBC management cant. You will never be able to stop sound card capture, so why bother? Security through obscurity is not security and bullying open source developers (get_iplayer) is simply appalling behaviour from an organisation I fund and agree with the founding principles of.

    Why does the BBC support proprietary formats like Adobe? On the day that Apple overtakes Microsoft as the new evil empire of technology, reflect on the fact that Flash will not work on their nasty little toys. So that will justify a bigger technical empire for you. Nice. more technology you can screw up like landing us with a poor DAB standard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I've just tried the Beta and think it is awful; the original was far more user friendly. I hate not having the Home page which linked me straight to what I was in the middle of listening to or watching, and I dislike having the radio in pop-up without my asking it to pop up. I don't like the split between tv and radio so I can't get the general overview we had before on the Home page. And most of all I absolutely loathe the fact that having tried the Beta, and now wanting to go back to the original, I can't make Firefox load anything but Beta.

    Please please please let those of us who don't like it just get back to the original and stay there. And instead of spending the budget (licence-payers' money) on this, use it to improve digital tv reception for those of us who've had that, too, forced on us whether we wanted it or not and now half the time can't get BBC programmes at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Some have commented about lack of prominence of radio on the iPlayer homepage others have agreed it is almost unmissable #7

    I personally like the dichotomy as I tend to look for either radio or TV content but not both at the same time.

    Presumably users outside the UK will see only the Radio section or at least that will be the default.Surely it would be easy enough to have the system set a cookie that remembered whether the user last looked at TV or Radio, or have a default setting for that user set by cookie. (cookies avoids use of BBC login ID that others seem not to like )

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    "and now wanting to go back to the original, I can't make Firefox load anything but Beta."

    Laura at least when I use iPlayer Beta in firefox I have no problem reverting to the standard version. Open the iPlayer homepage (which will be in Beta) and click on the link at the bottom of the page ( marked "Back to current BBC iPlayer" )

    There are other ways to revert to the ordinary version but that is the intended method.

    If you continue having problems with that post on the messageboard and someone will help you out. Click or double click HERE for the messageboard whilst the board is open (8am-10pm)and login to post a message.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.


    just wanted to let you know that James Hewines, the Head of BBC iPlayer has posted on the Internet blog: behind the scenes of BBC iPlayer


  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think it's terrific, or at least it will be when I've learned how to work it... ;o)

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I've just tried the beta and I like how you can mark favourite programmes and download future episodes. Unfortunately, I can't download anything fro the beta site. When I do it says I need to install iplayer Desktop. I closed this down and after a couple attempts it did install another copy though I don't know if it's any different. However, having done some was devastated to see it say that many of my downloads had now expired when they hadn't and I've now lost these and can't download them again. Get your act together BBC. I love iplayer but you've just made me loose 10 programmes I hadn't watched.

    Even with this 'new' desktop software I still can't download any files because it still tells me I have to install the desktop software. What on earth is going on? I've had to go back to the original version which is allowing me to download files.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Loved the old version. I cannot listen to the radio about 75% of the time with the new version. Adjusting the bandwidth is worthless. New is only better if it operates better. Booo!!!


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