BBC iPlayer On Virgin Media TV
As of this morning, anyone with Virgin Media TV can press the red button from any BBC channel and access the iPlayer directly on their television.
Getting the iPlayer into the living room is a big deal for me. Since its early development, I've been asked often whether it would be available on television. Why? Well, because the programmes are made for television, and mainstream audiences like to watch them from the comfort of their armchairs and on the TV.
We've already launched a version on the Nintendo Wii, which enables users to access the iPlayer via their consoles and watch via their TVs. With today's launch, we are now able to offer broadcast-quality on-demand programmes in a navigation constructed for the television audience and which works on the remote control. A couple of clicks, and you get full-screen video at high quality with no buffering.
The programme offering is pretty much the same as that which you get on the web, although there are some exceptions due to rights. Regional variations, radio programmes and some acquistions are not available at present. However, we hope this will change in due course. We also hope to be able to offer High Definition programmes too!
It has been a long and challenging project. The first challenge was around navigation: how do you help people find the programmes which they want to watch when there is so much to choose from, and in a way which is easy to do on a TV with a remote control?
Fortunately, we were able to build on years of designing interactive television services. Simplicity is the key to attract a wide range of viewers, including many who are in no way tech-savvy. After user testing, we arrived at simple list-based navigation.
But I think the real winner may well be the Search - something which had never really been tried on a TV before, but which we thought was essential to have in such an extensive service. It proved really popular in the user testing. For the next version, search will be more prominent.
The second challenge was technical: the assets are encoded in MPEG2 format. The application, like our other interactive applications, is written in Liberate. The assets are played back using Virgin's Seachange VoD systems. The integration across the systems of BBC, Red Bee, Siemens and Virgin took a long time. Problems we faced included metadata work (much longer than any of us expected); reducing the time it takes for a programme to appear on the TV to within an hour (the technical term for this is "propagation latency"); increasing application speed and making it work on many different variants of set-top box.
The next step is to make it available elsewhere, so that BBC iPlayer is available on a range of TV platforms - where technically possible, of course. Talks are underway, and I'll update you as soon as possible.
And if you're a Virgin subscriber, please try it and let us know your feedback - and any ideas for improvement.
Rahul Chakkara is Controller, TV Platforms, BBC Future Media & Technology