The original iPlayer service was launched in October 2005, undergoing a five month long trial of five thousand broadband users until 28 February 2006. The iPlayer came under criticism for the delay in launch, rebranding and cost to BBC licence-fee payers, as no finished product had been released after four years of development. A new, improved iPlayer service then had another very limited user trial which began on 15 November 2006.
The iPlayer received the approval of the BBC Trust on 30 April 2007, and an open beta for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 was launched at midnight on 27 July 2007, where it was announced that only a fixed number of people would be able to sign up for the service, with a controlled increase in users over the summer.
The BBC has also been criticised for saying that the iPlayer would ‘launch’ on the 27 July 2007, when what was on offer was simply an extension of the beta to an open beta, admitting more users in a controlled manner. This was done reportedly to allow British ISPs and the BBC to gauge the effect of the iPlayer traffic on the Internet within the UK, although Channel 4 and ITV had both recently launched similar services.
The open beta incorporated a media player, an electronic programme guide (EPG) and specially designed download client, and allowed the download of TV content by computers assigned to a United Kingdom-based IP address, for use up to thirty days after broadcast. However, it was only available to users of Windows XP.
This was a controversial decision by the BBC, which led to a petition being posted on 10 Downing Street’s e-petition website. The petition reached 16,082 signatures on 20 August 2007. The response from the Government was:
… the Trust noted the strong public demand for the service to be available on a variety of operating systems. The BBC Trust made it a condition of approval for the BBC’s on-demand services that the iPlayer is available to users of a range of operating systems, and has given a commitment that it will ensure that the BBC meets this demand as soon as possible. They will measure the BBC’s progress on this every six months and publish the findings.
On 16 October 2007, the BBC announced a strategic relationship with Adobe, that would bring a limited, streaming-only version of the iPlayer to Mac and Linux users, as well as Windows users who cannot or do not wish to use the iPlayer download service. The streaming service was launched on 13 December 2007. Most programmes can only be viewed for up to seven days after broadcast, unlike the thirty days provided by the download service.
Since January 2008 it has supported Mozilla Firefox (only under the Microsoft Windows platform) for downloading content.
Before the iPlayer had even launched, it was announced that the BBC, alongside ITV and Channel 4, were intending to launch a new video on demand platform, provisionally named Kangaroo. It was intended that Kangaroo would complement the video on demand services that these channels were already offering, including the iPlayer, by making programmes available once their “catch up” period expires. The Kangaroo project was eventually abandoned after being blocked by the Competition Commission in early 2009.
Following a deal between the BBC and cable television provider Virgin Media, the iPlayer service was made available through the provider’s on-demand service. The cable service launched on 30 April 2008, and keeps the look and feel of the BBC iPlayer program.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the BBC stated that the iPlayer cost 6 million to develop up to 8 April 2008.
On 23 August 2008, a new feature, Series Stacking, was announced. This feature started being rolled out on 13 September 2008, and allows viewers to watch previous programmes from selected series until the series has ended, with a limit of up to thirteen weeks after first broadcast. Not all programmes will form part of the stack, however. The BBC Trust has permitted 15% of content to be offered as part of the stacking service; soaps, news bulletins and review-based programmes will not be stacked, as well as programmes containing material of a legal nature, such as Crimewatch.
On 19 December 2008, the BBC released, as part of the iPlayer Labs feature, iPlayer Desktop for Mac and Linux operating systems. This moved the download service away from the previous P2P based distribution model and onto an HTTP download model.
On 20 April 2009, the BBC incorporated high-definition streams and downloads of some content on the iPlayer. There are plans to roll out the HD streams to devices such as the Virgin Set Top Box, but no date has yet been set. A BBC iPlayer application for the PlayStation 3 was announced by Sony in August 2009 and was released on the 1 September 2009 along with the Firmware 3.0 update to coincide with the launch of the slimline PlayStation 3 .
Another version of iPlayer was released in late 2009 as a ‘channel’ for the Nintendo Wii. This shows only low definition videos of BBC shows up to 7 days after their release on Television.
One of the key features of the original iPlayer download service was the use of peer-to-peer technology to enable the distribution of large video files (i.e. TV programmes) to scale effectively. Once downloaded, the content was only playable within the iPlayer itself or Windows Media Player 10 or 11, and subject to digital rights management. In December 2008 the BBC moved to an Adobe AIR based client that downloaded content via HTTP rather than P2P. The new system replaced the Windows DRM system with Adobe’s own. (DRM) software will prevent it being directly copied to another medium (e.g. another computer or CD-ROM). Additionally, the DRM allows the BBC to decide how long the programmes remain watchable. Programmes will be available for download for seven days following broadcast. Once a programme is downloaded a user will have thirty days to start watching it. Once a user starts to watch a programme, it will continue to be available for the next seven days. These limitations do not apply to viewers using the online streaming service.
There was criticism levelled at the iPlayer’s use of KService from Kontiki, the peer-to-peer application which continues to use users’ bandwidth, even after the iPlayer has been shut down, though this could be controlled using options available within the software. Because of this, users may have been charged by their Internet service provider for exceeding their download limit or fair use policy. However, since the new client was introduced in December 2008 the Kontiki P2P system has not been used.
The client also offers an electronic programme guide (EPG) with listings for both the previous seven and next seven days’ programmes; selecting a programme which has already been broadcast will begin downloading it immediately, while those not yet shown will be downloaded as soon as they have been. It is currently not possible to schedule a series to be automatically downloaded when the next episode becomes available, but the BBC hopes to make this available in a later version.
Online streaming service
A screenshot of the old version of BBC iPlayer streaming page for television programme, Sound
The BBC’s streaming version of iPlayer, which makes use of Adobe Flash software, was launched on 13 December 2007. The BBC made use of the Christmas period to trumpet the new service with the tagline ‘Making the unmissable… unmissable’, and the service came out of beta on the 25 December 2007. Also, seasonal specials were followed routinely throughout the Christmas week with plugs for iPlayer. The streaming version of iPlayer offers replays of programmes broadcast on all BBC TV channels during the last seven days. Programmes are available from all national BBC television channels as well as BBC Wales programmes shown on S4C. Due to licensing agreements, international and some privately-produced shows or movies are not available on iPlayer.
On the 25 June 2008, the BBC announced that they had been developing a new version of the iPlayer that is based on user feedback – it was then called “BBC iPlayer 2.0”. New features included combining the normal television iPlayer with the radio iPlayer, schedules of programmes due to be on the iPlayer, automatic resumption of the last programme watched, an increase in the size of the screen by 25% to 640 pixels wide, RSS feeds of iPlayer data, and a “Yesterday’s TV” function. The beta ran alongside the existing site until 3 July 2008, when a new version replaced it.. Later versions have implemented an option of streaming videos in high quality.
A newer platform was launched at the end of 2008 which facilitated the use of the new BBC iPlayer Desktop (Replacement for Download Manager) as well as other “BBC iPlayer Labs” features such as adjustable video windows and user feedback options. As of March 2009, the BBC launched the new 1500kbps streaming version of the player which provides near TV quality pictures even when in full screen.
On 30 April 2008 the iPlayer service was fed directly to Virgin Media’s 3.4m digital cable TV customers as part of the company’s video-on-demand service. Pressing the ‘red button’ while watching a BBC channel on TV will bring up the iPlayer service without the user having to access the web.
On 29 May 2008 Virgin Media successfully integrated iPlayer with the Virgin Media electronic programme guide. The majority of BBC shows are now listed alongside other VOD content in Virgin’s Catch Up TV section as well as through the red button whilst viewing a BBC channel. There will be no charge for watching BBC shows through the iPlayer on Virgin Media.
As of 21 July 2008, iPlayer on Virgin Media had received 10.5 million views since its official launch on 1 June 2008. On 26 September 2008 it was revealed that one third of all iPlayer programme views were accessed through Virgin Media.
On 1 May 2009, the BBC and Virgin Media announced the launch of HD content via BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media’s TV platform, including Robin Hood, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and Later… with Jools Holland.
On 23 July 2009 the first subscription-free digital terrestrial device to include iPlayer, went on sale in UK retailers. The FetchTV Smartbox connects to any broadband connection and gives access to the BBC iPlayer as well as being a Freeview+ PVR.
FetchTV created its own version of the iPlayer, believing it was adhering to BBC guidelines but support was declined by BBC Future Media and Technology. IP Vision made a formal complaint to the BBC in March 2009, the matter then passed to the BBC Executive Fair Trading Complaints Panel, which rejected the complaint, and IP Vision then appealed to the BBC Trust. On 22 December 2009 the BBC Trust rejected FetchTV’s request to release the product. The Trust Finance and Compliance Committee (FCC) found that the BBC had given reasonable arguments as to why IP Vision should not be allowed to go ahead with its self-build product. New guidelines were introduced in October 2009 formalising a ban on third parties building their own iPlayer products.
BBC iPlayer as displayed by the Nintendo Wii
During March 2008 an unofficial Python script was released to allow original Xbox’s running XBMC to access the BBC iPlayer.
On 9 April 2008 the BBC iPlayer was made available to stream video content on the Wii video game console via the Internet Channel. This was enabled by a recoding of the iPlayer to use Flash 7 rather than Flash 9. However, the Autumn 2009 update to the Wii’s Internet Channel resulted in the iPlayer no longer working on updated consoles. A BBC iPlayer in the form of a dedicated Wii channel was launched on the 18th November 2009. The BBC iPlayer Channel is free to download from the Wii Shop Channel; the service is only available to UK residents.
An official iPlayer application widget was provided in the PS3 System Software 3.0 released on 1 September 2009. However, this is merely a URL link to the iPlayer site, despite this the PS3 now accounts for 6% of all iPlayer traffic, making it the third most popular platform used to access the service behind personal computers (85%) and mobile phones/ipods (7%).
A deal between the BBC and Microsoft has still been unable to be reached because Microsoft strategy of charging for all content on its Xbox Live platform is incompatible with the BBC public service remit. Microsoft wants to ensure that only those paying for Xbox Live Gold accounts can access its additional content services. The BBC cannot charge the British public for access to the iPlayer as it is already included in the licence fee.
On 27 May 2008, BT began to charge BT Vision customers 3 per month for watching BBC Replay, a cut down version of iPlayer offering a more limited 30 hours of BBC programming per week. A spokesman for BT said that its customers had only previously been able to view BBC on-demand content because of “technical issues”. A BBC spokeswoman said: “In line with other TV platforms where BBC programmes are made available on demand, the BBC requires that all public service content should be accessible via the lowest cost subscription tier. In this case, it is BT Replay.”
From 1 April 2009, the Replay package was included in all of BT Vision’s Value Packs but remains available as a separate, 2.93 per month, package to non-subscribers.
On 2 November 2009, it was announced that a beta release of BBC iPlayer for Freesat will be released on 7 December 2009 to a limited number of Freesat viewers. On 21 December 2009, iPlayer was made available on a soft launch to Freesat viewers with Humax Foxsat HD receivers only, with an official release on 11 January 2010. It is the final beta version of iPlayer, available via the red button through inputting code 5483. On 20 January 2010, Sony released software update 1.630SA to enable BBC iPlayer on all of their Freesat integrated televisions. Other manufacturers will be added as and when they have carried out the initial testing with the BBCi Tech Team. All Freesat HD and Freesat+ set top boxes and Freesat integrated televisions will be able to receive it early 2010.
On 4 May 2009, Ilse Howling the managing director of Freeview, announced that plans for the roll-out of the BBC iPlayer on Freeview are ahead of schedule, with expectations that iPlayer-enabled Freeview boxes will be available later in 2009, this slipped to 2010.
In December 2009, Cello Electronics released the Marks & Spencer branded iViewer TV. The television is internet enabled, allowing for the viewing of online content including the BBC iPlayer, which has its own physical button on the remote, although BBC iPlayer HD won be available until 2010.
On 11 January 2010, the BBC announced that BBC iPlayer will be built directly into TVs that will be widely available in the UK within months. Samsung Electronics became the first major manufacturer to officially announce that its televisions will be updated to include full access to the iPlayer through their Internet@TV service.
iPhone and iPod Touch
BBC iPlayer 2.0 beta as displayed by the iPhone
On 7 March 2008, a beta version for Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch was released. The version marked the first time the service became available on portable devices, allowing streaming over a wi-fi connection. The EDGE connectivity on the iPhone, however, is not supported, as it is too slow for streaming video.
An exploit was soon discovered in this tailored content for the iPhone allowing users to bypass the DRM, download the files and play them on alternative devices. The BBC closed this hack on 13 March 2008. Through the month of June 2008 the ongoing battle followed a tit for tat progress. A Ruby exploit was followed by the BBC introducing XOR encryption on parts of the downloaded files if a genuine iPhone was not detected. The BBC introduced specially crafted web bugs, referrer checks and download chunk limits, such that only devices exhibiting this behaviour, i.e. a genuine iPhone handset, would be able to stream the video content. A cycle of updates and reverse engineering has followed such that all the various streams, both for the iphone and flash streaming service, are now able to be downloaded without the need for decryption or DRM circumvention. This has been made possible by various software which can effectively simulate a RTMP flash client or and an iPhone.
Nokia N96 phone
On 18 September 2008, the BBC announced that a version will become available to the Nokia N96 mobile phone as a download service to allow viewers to watch programmes even when they are out of reach of Wifi or 3G networks. The launch date was set of 1 October 2008.
Shortly after on 9 September 2008, even before the BBC Nokia N96 download service had gone live, a method for independently downloading and playing the iPlayer N96 3GP stream on other mobiles, Linux and MacOS was published.
Additional mobile devices
iPlayer was updated to include streaming radio and television as well as extended to a variety of handsets in early December 2008 including the Samsung Omnia, Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1, Sony Ericsson C905, Sony Ericsson W995 and the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic.
There is also an unofficial but functional application for the Google Android platform called BeebPlayer.
Reception and adoption
Before the launch in December 2007, the BBC had hoped the service would reach half a million users in its first six months. This turned out to be a gross underestimate, as 3.5 million programmes were streamed or downloaded in the first three weeks alone. The Guardian described these figures as “remarkably promising”.
In its first year, 2008, growth continued at an impressive rate. By April, the iPlayer accounted for around five percent of all UK traffic, and had approximately five million page views per day by June. In December, it was announced that more than 180 million programmes have been watched on iPlayer since its release. During the BAFTAs in May, the iPlayer won the “Interactive Innovation Service/Platform” Award, beating Channel 4’s ‘Big Art Mob’ and the Bebo ‘Open Media Platform’. The streaming of programmes forms the lions share of the success, outnumbering downloads eight to one in January 2008, and 97:3 in October 2009.
In the month of October 2009, it was revealed that the site experienced 70 million requests and transferred seven petabytes of data. Television formed about two thirds of all requests, with radio making up the rest. Most TV was streamed from pre-recorded footage, whereas live streaming was preferred of radio. Eighty-five percent of requests were from computers, with much of the rest coming from iPods, iPhones and PS3s (from a total of 15 platforms). The most popular TV programme of 2009 was Top Gear, and the most popular radio was that reporting The Ashes.
The success of iPlayer may be down to a “long tail” effect, with users seeking out niche programmes; programmes broadcast on digital channels are doing remarkably well. However, this is expected to change with the introduction of booking programmes to download in advance, and automatic downloading of the next episode.
The demands of the iPlayer has met with some concern and criticism from UK ISPs due to the additional bandwidth the service will require. Several ISPs, notably Tiscali, have called on the BBC to partially fund network upgrades to cope with iPlayer traffic. The BBC responded by saying that the iPlayer was driving demand for broadband subscriptions.
During the 2005 and 2006 iPlayer trials, the DRM system used was based on Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM, which led to concerns about cross-platform availability, as this technology is only available for Windows XP. However, some users have managed to get it working using compatibility options in Vista. The BBC emphasises that it “has a commitment to platform neutrality and a remit to make its content as widely available as possible”, and that while the initial trial used a Microsoft-based technology, they are constantly looking for new technologies which would enable them to relax the restriction: Ashley Highfield, then BBC’s director of Future Media and Technology, explained that “we have always started with the platform that reaches the most number of people and then rolled it out from there”. They also point out that not all of the content delivered through the iPlayer will be subject to DRM – live streaming content, for instance, may not need the same level of control, presumably implying that players for Mac OS X and Linux systems could be developed with a restricted range of content. However, a project has been started to enable the iPlayer to work with other platforms via the Wine project.
On 14 August 2007, the Free Software Foundation staged a demonstration outside BBC Television Centre. The FSF’s Peter T. Brown criticised the BBC for what he claimed was a break from previous tradition: the insistence that, for the first time, BBC viewers would be forced to use proprietary technology to watch BBC programmes.
On 18 February 2010, the BBC updated iPlayer with a SWF verification layer that closes the door on open source implementations of Real Time Messaging Protocol streaming.
The fact that BBC TV productions are paid for by the UK television licence fee, as well as rights agreements with third parties, mean that BBC iPlayer TV programmes are only officially accessible from IP addresses allocated to UK-based entities. However most radio programmes can be accessed universally, with the exception of programmes, such as certain sports broadcasts, which are affected by rights issues.
A television licence is not required to view programmes on the iPlayer after they have been broadcast. The exception lies with the ‘Watch Live’ simulcast option, which is accessible through and played on the iPlayer site, where eight of the BBC’s channels are broadcast at virtually the same time as on television and hence a valid TV licence is required. Controversy lies in whether consumers should pay for a TV licence to watch live when the majority of programmes are available for free on the iPlayer hours after they have been broadcast.
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^ “iViewer iPlayer TV coming soon from Marks & Spencer”. Electricpig. 2009-12-08. http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2009/12/08/iviewer-iplayer-tv-coming-soon-from-marks-spencer/.
^ “BBC iPlayer to be built in to Samsung TVs”. The Daily Telegraph. 2010-01-11. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/6966236/BBC-iPlayer-to-be-built-in-to-Samsung-TVs.html.
^ Anthony Rose (2008-03-07). “BBC iPlayer On iPhone: Behind The Scenes”. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/03/bbc_iplayer_on_iphone_behind_t.html. Retrieved 2008-03-10.
^ “BBC iPlayer comes to the iPhone”. BBC News Online. 2008-03-07. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7283702.stm. Retrieved 2008-03-10.
^ “BBC calls DRM cops on iPlayer download party”. The Register. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/13/iplayer_iphone_drm_loophole_closed/. Retrieved 2008-06-04.
^ “BBC iPlayer fix hacked again!”. Paul Battley. http://po-ru.com/diary/bbc-iplayer-fix-hacked-again/. Retrieved 2008-06-06.
^ “Beebhack wiki: iPlayer IPhone H.264 version”. Phil Lewis. http://beebhack.wikia.com/wiki/IPhone_H.264_version#Timeline_of_BBC_updates_to_iPhone_interface. Retrieved 2008-06-18.
^ “Beebhack wiki: Programs”. Beebhack. http://beebhack.wikia.com/wiki/Programs. Retrieved 2010-01-10.
^ Matthew Postgate (2008-09-08). “BBC iPlayer on Nokia N96 mobile phone”. BBC Internet Blog. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/09/bbc_iplayer_on_nokia_n96_mobil.html. Retrieved 2008-09-08.
^ “BBC iPlayer offered on Nokia N96”. BBC News. 2008-09-08. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7603606.stm. Retrieved 2008-09-08.
^ Phil Lewis (2008-09-09). “Nokia N95/N96 BBC iPlayer Downloads working on Linux with vlc”. Linuxcentre. http://linuxcentre.net/?p=16. Retrieved 2008-09-09.
^ Phil Lewis (2008-09-09). “Beebhack Wiki: Nokia H.264 version”. Linuxcentre. http://beebhack.wikia.com/wiki/Nokia_H.264_version. Retrieved 2008-09-09.
^ BBC Internet blogs (2008-10-12). “BBC iPlayer: New Mobile Website in beta”. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/12/new_mobile_bbc_iplayer_website.html. Retrieved 2008-10-12.
^ Jo Best (2008-12-12). “iPlayer Day: More devices, more broadcasters”. Cnet. http://crave.cnet.co.uk/televisions/0,39029474,49300327,00.htm. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
^ Mark Sweney (2006-06-27). “BBC aims for 1m iPlayer users”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jun/27/digitalmedia.broadcasting.
^ Ashley Highfield (2008-01-13). “iPlayer Launch: First Indications”. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/01/iplayer_launch_first_indicatio.html.
^ a b Mark Sweney (2008-01-15). “BBC iPlayer bursts through user target”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jan/15/bbc.digitalmedia.
^ Richard Wray (2008-04-30). “BBC iPlayer Launched on Virgin Media”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/apr/30/technology.virginmedia. Retrieved 2008-05-22.
^ Anthony Rose (2008-06-25). “BBC Internet Blog”. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/06/bbc_iplayer_20_sneak_preview.html. Retrieved 2008-06-25.
^ Ian Morris (2008-12-09). “BBC iPlayer may be offered to its commercial rivals”. CNET UK. http://crave.cnet.co.uk/televisions/0,39029474,49300271,00.htm.
^ “Television Craft Winners in 2008 – The BAFTA site”. British Academy of Film and Television Arts. 2008-05-12. http://www.bafta.org/awards/television-craft/television-craft-nominations-in-2008,363,BA.html.
^ Ashley Highfield (2008-01-14). “iPlayer Launch: First Indications”. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/01/iplayer_launch_first_indicatio.html.
^ a b c d e http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2009/nov/30/bbc-iplayer-statistics-graphic
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BBC iPlayer at BBC Online
Press release announcing extended trial of iMP at BBC Online
“Ask Bruce” article on iMP at BBC Online
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