For anyone involved or interested in distribution of media content over the Internet, understanding how the BBC’s iPlayer service has evolved, why certain decisions were made and what future directions are being explored makes for fascinating reading.
The European Broadcasting Union recently published an article entitled the “Evolution of the BBC iPlayer” which is based on a series of phone interviews with Anthony Rose, the Controller of the Vision & Media Group at the BBC. The interview covers a wide range of topics relating to the BBC iPlayer and it is great to see the BBC being so open about the technology, business decisions and supporting infrastructure that contribute to running a service which has delivered nearly 300 million content play-requests.
Some highlights from the interview are below, but I’d recommend that you download and read the interview and keep an eye on the BBC iPlayer blog where additional detail about the service is often published by the iPlayer team.
On Future BBC iPlayer developments: “Anthony Rose: The user will be able to download automatically a programme during the night. If you leave your computer on and if, for example, you watched Dr Who last week and the week before, it is likely that you will want to watch Dr Who next week. For ISPs, peak bandwidth is very expensive, but it is cheap during the night. We know that our top 20 programmes account for about 70 percent of all our bandwidth. In this way, most of our programmes could be delivered during the off-peak hours, downloaded and stored on the user’s local hard drive. Thus, peak bandwidth usage could be significantly reduced. This is really a mixed economy where the difference between streaming and downloading is getting blurred.”
On the decision to use the H.264 codec and playback performance: “AR: We have now found that H.264 does not use more CPU power for the configuration we have chosen, compared to the On2 VP6 codec. Rather, the contrary is true in full screen mode and, because we use hardware acceleration, it uses less CPU power. The answer is that, if you are not careful, H.264 is unplayable on low-end machines, but if you choose carefully, H.264 could be a pretty good user proposition.”
On using Digital Rights Management (DRM): “AR: For downloading, we have to DRM our files for two reasons. First, the rights holders expect that the content will be available in the UK only. Second, content must only be available for a limited amount of time, so it can be commercially exploited, as is the case with BBC Worldwide’s licensing of the Top Gear programme. Broadcasters in the USA who pay BBC Worldwide millions of pounds for broadcast rights would probably pay less if there was no DRM, as the content would be available elsewhere. This is the main reason why the rights holders demand DRM. In addition, it is a requirement of the BBC Trust (the BBC governing body) that files are only available for 30 days after download and seven days after being broadcast. So these are the reasons why we have to apply DRM to downloads.”
“AR: We have done a lot of due diligence and we have investigated all the
viable DRM solutions. We have met with companies that develop them and we looked at the technologies themselves and evaluated them. The reality is that, until quite recently, Microsoft was the only viable one. It is free, secure and approved by Hollywood labels and approved by rights holders. It is easy to put on servers and clients. The problem is, however, that it is Windows only.”
“AR: The good news however is that other companies like Adobe are developing cross-platform DRM products. Adobe AIR now has DRM available for the PC, Mac and Linux. We hope to have a crossplatform solution by the end of this year based on Adobe AIR and Adobe DRM.”
The beta version of the BBC iPlayer desktop application, using Adobe AIR and our DRM technology launched last week and has once again shown how the BBC are leading the way here – ITV, Channel 4, Sky and other broadcasters really need to learn from the BBC’s experiences and make their content available on platforms other than Windows.