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BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, and Sky Free Internet TV compared
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You are currently in Entertainment, Film and Music, Mobile devices and media
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Sat May 17, 2008 6:28 pm Reply and quote this post
BBC
The iPlayer(formerly know as the iMP, or Interactive Media Player) was announcedin 2003 and intended to be an extension to the successful Radio Player,built around RealPlayer. The final iPlayer is, thankfully, shaping upto be a much slicker affair, looking like a cross between Joost and acable/satellite Electronic Program Guide (EPG). As long as you live inthe UK, on launch you will be able to download a selection of programsup to 7 days after broadcast, and you then have 30 days in which towatch it before the DRM kicks in. I’m guessing that the range ofprograms will be similar to the offerings on Virgin Media’s “Replay”feature, i.e. most popular “home-grown” programs such as Eastenders,Doctor Who and Life on Mars.
The iPlayer has come under fire from open source advocatesbecause, at launch, it will only be available for Windows XP users.This goes against the BBC’s charter, restricting the application, andtherefore the programs, to certain systems. The BBC Trust has confirmedthat versions for Apple Mac, Windows Vista and mobile platforms willfollow [Ed. once the BBC can find a platform agnostic DRM solution, which could take some time],and more recently, the BBC’s announced that they are meeting with theOpen Source Consortium (OSC). The OSC are to work with the BBC on the possibility of developing an open source iPlayer.
The BBC also plans to expand the functionality of the iPlayer, suchas adding on-demand streaming, which would allow you to watch a programwithout downloading it first. They are also looking to add seriesstacking (allowing you to download previous episodes of a series) andintegrating the Radio Player with the iPlayer. The BBC will bepromoting the iPlayer heavily: via the BBC TV channels, links on theBBC website and also on partner websites such as YouTube, AOL andMySpace. There are indications that live streaming of BBC channels mayalso possible.
ITV
ITV are following the BBC’s lead, with the imaginatively titled “ITV Broadband“.They are offering programs that are viewable within the browser, usingWindows Media Player integrated into their web pages. At the momentthey are only offering 10 minutes catch-ups of the last 30 days’episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street, which are book-ended byadverts (being popular programs these are probably the two that couldattract the most advertising and therefore generate the most onlinerevenue), but that is set to expand. ITV are promising catch up optionson Drama, Lifestyle, Entertainment, Sport and News programs, plus a“Best of ITV” section too.
The biggest drawback I found was that ITV Broadband (which isPC-only) favors Internet Explorer. The only way I could view content inFirefox was to use the IETab add-on,which allows the current tab to be rendered using the Internet Explorerengine instead of the Firefox one, but fortunately ITV have had thesense to display a link to download IETab where the video normallyappears.
ITV also offers live streaming of their four channels from the website which is of reasonable quality.
It’s also worth mentioning ITV Local, the site for regional ITVbroadcasters such as Granada, Meridian and Tyne Tees. The site streamsnews updates, weather reports and other videos from the region, ondemand.
Channel 4/More4/E4
Channel 4’s “4oD”application has been available since December 2006 and is similar tothe forthcoming iPlayer. You can download a selection of programs fromChannel 4, More4 and E4 for free from the last seven days, or choosefrom the available archives. Again, DRM only lets you watch thedownloaded programs for up to 30 days. They also offer paid content,both television programs (including US imports such as Lost and UglyBetty) and films, from 99p.
Be prepared for long download times although the actual videoquality is very good. The application is sluggish on lower specmachines which may result in slow adoption; another problem may be theway in which the network actually serves the programs. It uses Kontiki,a peer-to-peer platform, to distribute video, which means that evenwhen you are not using the 4oD application, your computer may still beserving files to others, which some security- and bandwidth-conscioususers may dislike. It is also limited to running only on Windows XPsystems with Internet Explorer and Windows Media player, so once againApple Mac and open source fans will be left out in the cold.
Channel 4 too offers streaming through a browser-embedded MediaPlayer, for which you have to register (to make sure you’re a UKresident presumably) but the quality is quite good, even at full screen.
Five
Fivehas always been the black sheep of the UK TV industry. Their contenthas never really been on the same par as that of the other networks andtheir “fivedownload” service isn’t much better. It seems the onlyprograms they offer are Grey’s Anatomy and CSI (three flavours: CSI,CSI:Miami and CSI:NY) and it’s a pay service. With iTunes possiblyoffering a similar feature soon (these shows are available in the USstore so they may come to the UK too) I don’t really see that Five’sapplication will have much of a future unless they improve and increasethe available content.
Sky
Sky offers their “Sky Anytime”feature, which uses Kontiki, similar to Channel 4’s 4oD. To use SkyAnytime you need to register on Sky’s website, and then download theSky Anytime application (one again, PC-only). After installation, youlog in as expected and the first thing that hits you is how slick theapplication is. It’s responsive, looks good and has a large amount ofcontent. I’m not a Sky customer so I was limited to what programs Icould download, but TV subscriptions to entertainment, movies andsports packages unlocks similar content on Sky Anytime.
Its worth noting that Sky also let users program their Sky+ box over the net.
Conclusion
The major UK TV networks are making good ground with TV on the net.Of the dedicated applications on offer, Sky’s seem to be the bestoverall (at the moment) with its clean look, and responsive andintuitive interface. The range of content across the board is growing,with Channel 4 and the BBC ahead — and as advertising and other revenuestreams for internet TV are realized, the content from commercialnetworks will likely increase in quantity, as market forces demand it.
All of the UK networks employ techniques to prevent non-UK viewersfrom accessing their Internet TV offerings, such as geo-blocking, wherethe user’s IP address is used to establish their location. This is,in-part, a world-wide licensing issue (which in the BBC’s case is mademore complicated by its state-funding), but also protects potentialrevenue from overseas sales. However, with many popular UK programsappearing illegally online, and the fact that geo-blocking can becircumvented — moving forward, I think we’re likely to see the networkstake a more global approach to Internet TV programming, especially withregards to older content.
As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that users can programtheir Sky+ box (the company’s own DVR offering) over the internet andvia a mobile phone. The next logical step would be to allow users tostream programs recorded on their Sky+ box (or any other DVR) over thenet, similar to a Slingbox.This would add another dimension to Internet TV; you could be workingaway in another part of the country, or on holiday abroad, and with adecent broadband connection you can access content that you’vepreviously recorded.
This is an exciting time for Internet TV, and in particular I hopethat the iPlayer lives up to my expectations. I’m fairly convinced thatthe BBC is moving in the right direction and will push the boundariesof Internet TV, not only in the UK but also worldwide.

Contributed by Editorial Team, Executive Management Team
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