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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    Comment number 21.

    Just moved to Beta, Radio 4 link does not work. Is this typical?


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    Comment number 22.

    can I point you to a recent blog post from James Hewines? He's the Head of BBC iPlayer and is tracking all ideas, questions and constructive criticism around iPlayer. The post is really interesting and hopefully will answer some of your questions but if not you can raise them under the post.

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    Comment number 23.

    [I don't know if this comment will make it through the nationality filters for folks wanting to contribute...I couldn't comment on the message boards]

    As a US citizen, I grew up on BBC rebroadcast by the public TV station in my home town in Louisiana.
    But where I live now in Ohio, the local public TV stations do not carry much BBC programming and I cannot get the programs I so loved then and want now, especially Doctor Who and other wonderful SciFi offerings like Blake's 7.

    My thoughts on iPlayer's evolution address two items raised in the thread on "iPlayer access outside the UK"; 1) saying license fee payers should have access regardless their actual location and 2) questioning why should non-UK folks should have (limited) access when they don't pay anything? (Did commentator know non-UK folks' access is limited?)

    I agree both comments are justified, and while acknowledging the legal problems inherent in what were probably licenses agreed before internet-as-media-source was imagined, my answer echoes another commentator's word, "kaching". But let me expand.

    In response to #1 above, I would LOVE the opportunity to pay for UK-equivalent access to BBC's online offerings. But it isn't an option (yet?). All I can get is live BBC radio streamed to my smartphone. If I can sit at my computer while listening, I can re-play prior radio shows in iPlayer before they expire.

    In response to #2 above, see my response to #1. By experiencing limited access to streaming radio for free, I now want to pay for unlimited access. Providing free but limited access must be a vanishingly small cost relative to the benefits of promoting a product that recruits new customers with little effort (except by me as I always have to explain to folks why I'm wearing always listening to my phone's headset).

    What appears to be missing in the discussion about "iPlayer access outside the UK" this is a rational way for the BBC to maximize value to UK license payers by collecting money from sales of streaming media while maintaining the legal requirements. The potential value to UK license payers is large if BBC figures out how to do it while satisfying the intent if not word of its legal obligations. And after all, changing the legal obligations just needs canny interpretation, clever lawyers, and the grease of money.

    There must be a great many folks like me across the world, both UK expats and foreigners...just check the oncoming internet addresses for who's streaming the media. My desire to pay is low-hanging fruit for an agency looking for operating funds.

    The results could be many-faceted.
    BBC could say they are easing the burden on UK citizens by pulling in funds from outside the UK. This will likely address the sense of unfairness expressed by the commentator and would probably please all UK citizens to know that what they have paid for so long unwillingly is such a good product that foreigners are paying for it willingly. I mean, that's got to take some sting out of a UK citizen's requirement to pay.

    BBC could expand and improve its offerings to local UK citizens and non-UK fee payers by using the new revenue stream.

    It is low-cost. It can't be that expensive in the technical area to offer streaming media to non-UK license holders as it is just a matter of increasing bandwidth. What would be the cost-benefit from stopping bill collecting (hunting down non-payers in the UK) and putting those savings into revenue generation (providing non-UK folks the services)? Maybe require all full-access streaming media require ID and password received upon payment of the license in order to keep a reasonable number of folks paying.

    After paying off lawyers to revise licensing issues, the media creators who granted BBC Trust the license to broadcast in the first place stand to make more money from the new revenue than they do now (if I am guessing right how the rights licensing works).

    Negative...lost revenue for all those non-UK companies who make money off me re-selling BBC's content (I stream last year's Doctor Who from Netflix to whom I pay a monthly fee for the privilege).

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    Comment number 24.

    I am overseas, in America, and I don't usually watch television. Mostly I listen to news and music. Most of the time I listen to BBC Radio 3 and 4. Recently I subscribed to Rhapsody, which for US$10 a month gives me access to unlimited listening to an unbelievably huge library of music of all sorts. The sound quality is excellent. It is a good combination with the BBC radio programmes and the web resources available for information on what I listen to. Discovering Music, Composer of the Week, and CD Review serve as a starting point from which I can find out what other recordings there are that are of interest, and then I can go hunt them up on Rhapsody. But lately I have been trying to branch out, and listening to Radio 6, Radio 1, 1x, and other networks, and have just listened to some of the Glastonbury material on Radio 1 On Demand.

    I have started to have trouble, when I shut down Rhapsody and try to go to Radio 3 or sometimes Radio 4 Live. It doesn't start playing, and eventually I get a message telling me that I have insufficient bandwidth. I know I do have sufficient, much more than sufficient bandwidth, and I can listen On Demand or switch to another station. I have tried a lot of things such as running Disk Cleanup, and lately I switch to a station I don't want to listen to so that when the connection fails I can switch to the station I want. This afternoon I tried that, and I could get Radio 2 but failed when I tried to switch to Radio 3 for the jazz programme.

    This is technical stuff. I have Windows Vista and IE8. I just recently got Flashplayer 10 because a BBC story told me there might be security problems with the earlier versions, and I found something called Hardware Acceleration that they said might be causing problems. I turned it off last night, but still problems. I have spoken to Rhapsody, and they don't seem to know what it going on and referred me to iPlayer. The iPlayer complaint mechanism is cumbersome and doesn't work. Maybe they don't want to service people outside the UK anymore, I don't know. I do know that the domestic networks used to have Real feeds, but these have been discontinued. I remember audio clips on the links saying they were being shut down, and the web page with the links to these feeds was replaced with a page that gave very little information at all. The only useful page is still the iPlayer Radio Stations page, and I have saved a number of iPlayer pages for catagories such as news, classical music, and for catagories of programmes on the different stations, all in Most Recent listings. In this way I can load the pages and go right to what I want to listen to. If they work, that is.

    Now someone at Real told me that Real no longer works with the BBC because of some sort of comflict about licenses. They are I believe cutting off their nose to spite their face because they are taking away one of the main incentives people have to use Real. They have also changed their player and made it impossible for me to store links to WQXR2, WKCR, and other station links in their player. What they want is for people to use content whose owners have paid Real to promote, and this is nice if you happen to be a young male in the 15-25 age group with a hormone problem and no intelligence or curiosity. Otherwise they don't want to hear from you. Even then, they want you to have rich, gullible parents who will let you use their charge card. Rhapsody has the same attitude to an extent, they are always pushing the losers from reality television like Ozzie Osborne and the former Hannah Montanna. But with them you can always find good stuff to listen to. But now I find it hard to leave them and go back to Radio 3.

    Am I alone in this, and what can I do about it? Can't go to iPlayer complaints, doesn't seem to take my complaints. Funny I don't have problems with any other place. Also what is up with the media player business. I thought the idea was to help people listen to stuff and watch stuff!

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    Comment number 25.

    PS-I had decided to listen to listen to the Orkney Festival and while writing the letter here it shut down, and by some reason I was then able to listen to Radio 3 Live for Music Through the Night. Interestingly, the music shut down during the Enigma Variations, and the way iPlayer works is truly an enigma. There do seem to be a lot of undocumented features (bugs) in this stuff.

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    Comment number 26.

    When I use the new Beta version of iplayer, Internet Explorer 8 reports that a Flash script is causing the browser to run slowly, and advises me to abort it. When I click 'yes', the buttons on iplayer don't work and jitter continuously, and the page does not display right, even though streaming continues.
    This problem has occured many times, with different programmes, for several days.
    The problem *may* only occur when I try to enter full screen mode, I am not sure.
    If I reload the page in the non-beta version of iplayer, the problem goes away, and everything works as it should.

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    Comment number 27.

    The problem occurs every time, with or without full-screen mode

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    Comment number 28.

    hallelujah, i am back to the original iplayer. (little link at bottom of page) Now i have my recently played back, my quick click to 6music and the previous evenings programs one click away. And no longer need to scroll past the overlarge 'featured' rot, to get to what i want.

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    Comment number 29.

    I signed up for Beta this morning and now cannot access I player at all. Safari just refuses to even try to load it . I copied the address into Google chrone with the same result. I can no longer access anything. I am using Mac OS 10.6.4 snow leopard

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    Comment number 30.

    Why can I not get the extras from programs like east enders through my freesat box, when free view customers can?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    So despite all the protests the Beta iPlayer has gone live. What a ghastly mistake. Why can I no longer see 'last played'? That was one of the most useful features, allowing me to go straight back to something I hadn't finished or, in the case of a serial, to click on the next episode. And why isn't there an alpha sequence to click on? It's almost as bad as the ITVPlayer. Why oh why oh why did you have to 'upgrade' (ha, ha) something that was working fine?

    I despair, I really do. Do the licence-fee payers' views count for nothing? Stupid question, really: you don't care what we think, do you? You just want to do your own technological thing because you think it improves the Beeb's image. It doesn't.

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    Comment number 32.

    Very recently the BBC announced huge forthcoming cuts, which many people are unhappy about, especially those that will be losing their jobs. Millions of people worldwide love the BBC and significant revenues are just waiting to be had by simply creating a fee process for non-uk residents to access the iPlayer. For instance, even a fee of 10 euros a year times, say, 10,000,000 (not an unrealistic amount if the fee is kept small)= 100,000,000 euros. Not to be sneezed at. How can the licensing board complain as long as non uk-residents are paying for access to a portion of the BBC ? Seems like a no-brainer. I see I'm not alone here in suggesting this. Think about it BBC.

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