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The fuss about iPlayer

Simon Pitt | Internet | Wednesday 29th April 2009

Nobody really knows what the stupid little "i" at the beginning of the "BBC iPlayer" stands for. You might be excused for thinking it stood for "information", although saying it's an "information player" is a bit like filing all your paperwork under "p" for paper". Or maybe it stands for "Internet", but it doesn't play the internet, it's a player on the Internet. Even looking at it's development doesn't help. Before becoming BBC iPlayer, it was known as the "Integrated Media Player" and then the "Interactive Media Player" so that doesn't get us any further. Suspiciously, with the lowercase "i" at the beginning it looks like they've just jumped on the Apple bandwagon, and have named it after the iPod, the iPhone and, presumably, the iNvasion of iRaq.

The iPlayer was launched in 2005. Although, by "launched" what I really mean is tried out on basically no one. It wasn't until 2007 that it eventually was rolled out properly, and even then, this was a long drawn out process. The first version used Kontiki software, and required a special programme to be installed on the user's computer. This wasn't incredibly popular and could only be used on Windows, until the BBC came up with the idea of streaming the software using Adobe Flash. Eventually they got round to doing this in December 2007. By this point, Channel 4 had released 4oD (at least that stood for something - "on demand" - even if, for no conceivable reason, the o is lowercase and the d is uppercase). Nevertheless, it was still another year (exactly a year to the day), before ITV realised something was going on, thought they'd better do something, and released ITVPlayer, basically copying the iPlayer logo and its name as well.

Now that streaming had been introduced via a flash application, you might be excused for thinking that iPlayer was basically YouTube. Wrong, because unlike YouTube, iPlayer took four years and £6 million to develop.

In May 2008, the iPlayer was awarded a BAFTA, something I didn't even know could happen, in the same way that I didn't think my can opener could get an Oscar. Turns out I was wrong there (although my can opener hasn't had to write an acceptance speech yet). But since May, pretty much everyone in the BBC has been dining out on just how clever they are for making the iPlayer, how brilliant it is, and just how wonderful everything in the world is now that the iPlayer exists. Except for Tiscali, who, eager to blame someone else for their own shit level of service, jumped on the BBC and demanded that they pay for network upgrades to the phone network. The BBC laid the smack down on Tiscali, pointing out that iPlayer was driving demand for broadband, so Tiscali should just go and pay for their own network upgrades with their own pocket money.

A few statistics for you, since you know how much I love them: iPlayer now accounts for about 5% of all UK traffic (while on the one hand that's a lot, on the other hand Tiscali can go and shut up), and gets about 5 million page views a day. Which is pretty significant really. As well as the collective back slapping at the BBC, there's also been a lot of fuss about iPlayer, with protests outside TV Center and letters to the government and all sorts of worked up nonsense about nothing.

For the BBC it is, as someone pointed out on the Now Show, a "spectacular own goal". Just as they're trying to persuade people to pay the licence fee, they release everything onto the Internet for free. They're also, suddenly, feeling the problem that Hollywood has been whining about for the last few years. On the one hand, they want to provide their programmes to as many people as possible. On the other hand, they want people to keep the stuff because they want to flog them DVD releases later on.

(Actually, as an aside, for my moneysworth, what they should do with the licence fee is just add it as a compulsory tax per household along with council tax. Most people pay it anyway, and those who don't still come across BBC content somewhere. Once you'd done this you could get rid of the TV licensing enforcement and detector vans people and their aggressive letters, and save yourself several million pounds a year - which you could then knock off the licence fee.)

The bottom line: the fuss around iPlayer is, like all fuss, a lot of overblown toss. iPlayer isn't going to change the world - yeah, sure, it's made people watch TV on the Internet a bit, but most people only stream stuff. Even if you were going to download it, it would delete itself after a week, so it's not exactly revolutionary. Basically, it's just a video recorder for people who don't know how to use the timer function.

To be fair, (although there's no reason why I should) it is a bit more than that, since you can watch things you didn't notice the first time round. It has created a slightly new audience (the programmes that are the most popular on iPlayer aren't the ones most popular on TV, but then that isn't surprising to anyone who isn't a complete idiot). But that's not exactly going to bowl me over, because, at the end of the day, it hasn't really made any difference to the "main event", which is, and still is, the ability, through torrent sites, to be able to download and keep pretty much any programme that's ever been on TV. I'll be honest - I remember being excited by iPlayer at first, and thinking how great it was, but now that the dust has settled, and I actually think about it, it's more of an addition that a revolution. It's brought more people to using the Internet for their media, but those of us who knew how to were doing that anyway. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with iPlayer, and it's useful, but it's more the level of service I've come to expect now, rather than something to get me worked up and dancing on the moors about.



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