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January 10, 2008 | Becky Hogge

BBC Director General grilled by MPs on iPlayer

Yesterday, BBC Director General Mark Thompson and other BBC representatives appeared in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. During the meeting, Dr John Pugh MP tackled him about the iPlayer. You can watch the full Public Accounts Committee meeting here (the talk of iPlayer starts about 10 minutes in).

During the meeting there is discussion of iPlayer's total cost to the licence fee-payer - the BBC representatives are unable to give a figure, but start the bidding at £20m, excluding staff costs. Thomson gives incorrect information - that Mac and Linux versions of iPlayer have the same functionality as Windows versions - and has to change his evidence at the end. Perhaps it was this confusion that prompted Dr John Pugh MP to follow up the encounter with a letter direct to Mark Thomson today discussing platform neutrality in greater detail. A copy of this letter has been passed to the Open Rights Group. Pugh writes:

"The more fundamental issue is [iPlayer's] failure to apply open standards and be sufficiently interoperable to work fully (stream and download) on more than one platform. The BBC is funded by licence players not all of whom have or chose to use a computer running Windows XP or Vista. By guaranteeing full functionality to the products of one software vendor it is as a public body handing a commercial advantage to that company - effectively illegal state aid!"

Dr John Pugh MP has previously accused the UK government of illegal state aid by excluding Linux and Mac Users from government services such as the Department of Work and Pensions online benefits system.

The BBC could avoid accusations like this if it eschewed DRM and instead employed standard formats. The BBC has made the wrong decision about DRM in its on-demand services. DRM threatens the future of public service broadcasting in the on-demand world and the BBC Trust and OfCom should assess the long-term economic case for the way the BBC buys rights to exhibit the programmes it commissions.

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Comments (10)

  1. Boycott Novell » Microsoft Plays Unfairly on The World Wide Web Again:
    Apr 30, 2008 at 01:02 PM

    [...] BBC Director General grilled by MPs on iPlayer [...]

  2. Antony Watts:
    Jan 13, 2008 at 08:46 AM

    You are right. Microsoft and WMV is still used today for downloads - along with P2P distribution. But they under pressure to find an agnostic download solution. This looks like it will be Flash with a player made with the new Adobe AIR software )still in Beta).

    As you say streaming is Flash, with distribution by a commercial streaming server supplier (at higher cost to the BBC) and thus available on all platforms (Flash 9 player is needed). Its a start but you still can't save the stream...

    The use of Adobe AIR / Flash seems to be the only commercially, soon to be available cross platform system... lets see if it canprovide a user acceptable solution. After all that money has been wasted on Microsoft!

    That's the technical position as far as I can see. The principles are yet to shake out, Is DRM really required, or is ir use just to pacify the rights people? Who have already lost it for music (eg Amazon downloads). There is a strong movement today to watermarking or signing files so that they are identified by consumer, then downloading without DRM. This makes them cross platform (PC, Mac, iPod...) hopefully. This would give us the ame possibility to stream, download and archive as we can by using a VCR. That's the point we have to reach I think.

    Then there is remains the issue to have the service World Wide (it's the internet after all). This should be done by a World Wide licence fee. But the BBC charter is UK only so a lot has to change to get to this point.

  3. Antony Watts:
    Jan 12, 2008 at 09:23 PM

    Oh by the way I shoul dhave made another note: the BBC has dropped their solution using Microsoft Media PLayer and DRM, they are now using Adobe Flash Media PLayer which has a new DRM designed by Adobe. I guess they think fewer people will notice as Adobe Flash is available for most platforms...

    However it is still DRM.

    What I personally would like to see is a solution based on plug-ins for media players (Quicktime, Real, Flash) that licences viewers to TV streams and the BBC's huge back catalogue.

  4. John Drinkwater:
    Jan 13, 2008 at 12:36 AM

    “the BBC has dropped their solution using Microsoft Media PLayer and DRM”

    No, as far as I can recall, the iPlayer for Windows is still allowing for 7 day catch up of shows with WMV, not Flash.

    Flash is being used as a supplemental streaming service for.. other operating system users. Oh, and Windows users could stream too, if they so choose.

  5. Antony Watts:
    Jan 12, 2008 at 09:08 PM

    I have been following this issue with the BBC people by email and on their blogs. The two main issues are

    1.The service is available only in UK (by IP detection). Lots of overseas British people and others would like to view the programs. It seems that the BBC is restricted to the UK because of its charter and because it has only negotiated the rights fo UK use.

    2.DRM. This is used because the rights people insist on it. The BBC has negotiated a deal to allow 7 day catch-up, UK only, no permanent recording, etc with them. They say the cost otherwise would be huge (£100's millions)

    Both of these issues need to be addressed so that we can get to the point where

    1. The BBC is a world wide broadcaster, in the interest of UK promotion (Their may be a new service "Kangaroo" starting 2008 for World Wide viewing, but either advertising supported or pay-by-view...). This is not iseal for consumers as it takes away free choice about what to watch.

    2. DRM has to be dropped. This is an issue for the rights people again, who insist on an out-dated business model (collect small rights anyway and everyway you can, split time and geography to negotiate impossible broadcast restrictions - thus costing the BBC huge amounts to provide software solution the meet their demands...).

    A big debate has to take place about rights demands and spintering, and about copyright in general, to free up the right to broadcast on the internet to a world wide audience.

    My personal proposal is to simply have a World wide licence, which when you buy it gives you the same viewing as any UK resident, over the internet.

  6. Becky:
    Feb 07, 2008 at 06:02 PM

    Mark Thompson has now responded to John Pugh's letter, and reproduces its contents in this blog post:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/02/iplayer_choices.html

  7. Becky:
    Jan 21, 2008 at 12:06 PM

    Sean Daly has now posted links to the full transcript of the meeting, plus some relevant highlights, over at Groklaw: http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20080120181708684

  8. Cathy:
    Jan 10, 2008 at 08:14 PM

    It doesn't do the English economy any good for its television to be locked up behind DRM. Much though I like a lot of British television (I'm an American) I refuse to "upgrade" my computer to have a compatible player in order to be able to watch the vast amount that hasn't otherwise managed to make its way over here.

    Fortunately for the English economy there's YouTube and enterprising fans who are willing to take the time to upload so many great and otherwise unavailable shows. Last month I was all set to enjoy a holiday in France, but as it happens I've recently been on a Stephen Fry kick and, thanks to YouTube, got to enjoy enough great English television (QI, Kingdom, etc.) that I was inspired to go visit England instead.

    In other words, because of "piracy," the English economy reaped the financial benefit of all my transportation, food, entertainment and lodging costs, and, in the "what about the artists, how ever will they afford to eat?" department, profits and royalties when, for souvenirs, I bought several books by English authors in local stores. You know, books - those nice, DRM-free works of creativity that can be enjoyed by anyone anywhere...

  9. Boycott Novell » Update on a Microsoft-loving BBC (Now Grilled in the Parliament):
    Jan 12, 2008 at 05:49 AM

    [...] During the weekend we intend to publish a fairly comprehensive coverage of issues that surround government establishments in the United Kingdom. Many of them are directly or indirectly controlled by Microsoft and concrete evidence of this cannot escape without comment. In the mean time, further to our recent coverage of the BBC fiasco, some action appears to be have finally been taken: [...]



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