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Question: Why doesn't iPlayer work outside the UK?

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Helen Purves Helen Purves | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 23 May 2011

I can't say I'm fully impartial when it comes to BBC output, since I work here, but I have to admit that if I moved out of the UK one of the things I'd miss the most is BBC television.  I don't know what I'd do without great political satire like Have I Got News For You, classic period dramas like Cranford or my regular fix of Lord Sugar in The Apprentice.

I know I'm not alone.  The WebWise inbox sees an almost constant stream of frustrated ex-pats who, having moved abroad, have suddenly found themselves not only without BBC TV channels but also without the ability to catch up on EastEnders online.

I can understand their frustration and - while I can't press a magic button which will make iPlayer work abroad - I thought it would be worthwhile explaining the main reason we can't do this.  The iPlayer FAQ section has some information about it, and the main BBC FAQ pages have general information for people visiting the BBC website from outside the UK, but here's a quick summary.

Basically, it's all down to right issues: who owns what footage, and who gets paid when it's used.  While we own all of the video footage and sound recordings we make ourselves, almost every programme which goes on air contains footage from somewhere else.  This saves the BBC - and therefore licence fee payers - a lot of money, and also makes for better programmes.

In case you're wondering where all this archive footage actually is, think about what you're listening to when you watch the programme.  If you listen carefully, you might hear great background music by artists like Elbow, Daft Punk or Mr Scruff.  Why spend money making music when someone else is already making it, and possibly doing a better job?

And then there's video footage you might not even think about - footage of historic events, images of animals in foreign countries, aerial shorts of mountains - all that kind of thing.  Well, it all costs money - and it costs a lot more money to make it available for everyone in the world as opposed to just viewers from the UK.

So how does the BBC know I'm based outside the UK?

You might be wondering how on earth the BBC knows the difference between someone based in the UK and someone based abroad.  Well, this is to do with something called your "IP (Internet Protocol) address".  Wikipedia has detailed information about this, but it can be simplified quite easily. 

Basically, every internet connection is given a unique number identifying it which is also tied to your location.  That means that websites can look at your IP address and change what you see depending on where you are.  It's not foolproof technology - on rare occasions people in the UK might have problems getting iPlayer, usually due to problems with their internet provider - but it does the job most of the time.

So there you are.  If you have a question you'd like answered, get in touch through our contact form.  See you next week!

As well as working on the WebWise production team, Helen has an interest in short-form video, social media and online marketing.

UPDATE: As of July 2010, the BBC iPlayer is available outside the UK as an "app" for the Apple iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. While a limited amount of content available is free, to access it all a subscription must be paid. As of March 2012 the app is available in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, The Republic of Ireland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Australia and Canada, with the United States expected soon.


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