BBC iPlayer gets (a little bit) better

If you really know me, you know two fact about me:

  1. I’m quite tall. (at 6′ 4½”)
  2. I don’t have a TV license (though I do have a TV, connected to a Wii and a Mac Mini)

The first fact means I don’t mind standing near the back of gigs. The second fact means that my entertainment tends to be digital. I rent and buy DVDs, I download and stream the odd thing here and there, and I was very pleased when the BBC and ITV between them offered video streams of every England matches during the last World Cup.

So, as you may have guessed, I was rather excited when the BBC first started talking about what is now their iPlayer. Sadly, for many of the same reasons as Kyb (and many other people) I was also disappointed with it. Employing DRM, only working on Internet Explorer, only working on Windows, pretty-but-difficult interface, there was lots about it not to like.

Well, there have been some updates today, and things are (a little bit) better.

BBC iPlayer - now with streaming

From the messageboard:

From today we are pleased to announce that streaming is now available on BBC iPlayer. This means that Windows, Mac and Linux users can stream programmes on iPlayer as long as their computer has the latest version of Flash. Another change is that you do not have to register or sign in any more to download programmes, and Windows XP and Vista users will have an improved version of Download Manager (formerly the Library) available to them.

I like:

  • The fact that there’s now the ability to stream content thanks to a Flash player. Handy for me, since it works in Firefox (on a Mac, no less) meaning I can watch it on my TV.
  • The fact that I don’t have to log in to use it. It just works.
  • I like the fact that I don’t even need a TV licence to use it.

I dislike:

  • The steaming quality is a bit mixed. Have I Got News for You was ok. The audio for Top Gear was dreadful.
  • The fact that many of the programmes are still only available for download, not for streaming. And that of course means I’d still need to be using Windows.

At least for now. Back in October, Ashley Highfield (BBC Director of Future Media and Technology) said

“We need to get the streaming service up and look at the ratio of consumption between the services and then we need to look long and hard at whether we build a download service for Mac and Linux.”

For now, I’m using the iPlayer to stream stuff (and hope other Mac users and Linux users will be using it too), but I’m not holding my breath. For some more background and discussion on the DRM issues, see this excellent post from Andrew Bowden.

Come on BBC. You can do this properly.

The other change that happened today was that ‘Listen Again’ audio on demand service has also all gone black-and-pink, and rebranded itself ‘iPlayer’.

BBC iPlayer Radio

Here’s their explanation, which says we should “watch out for further changes over the coming months”. That’s a relief.

30 replies on “BBC iPlayer gets (a little bit) better”

  1. Hi roo

    If the programme is available for download then it *will* be available for streaming but the team weren’t quite there yet with that when they sneaked it out late on wednesday.. having a look at it today i haven’t found any of those types of errors. i’m sure that when the celebrity marketing campaign kicks in (christmas day) it will all be sorted ;)

  2. Thanks Jem. That’s good to know.

    I’ll go back and try that episode of Top Gear again when I get home, because last night there were such hideous compression artefacts that we gave up on it. The mix was terrible too; you could barely hear Jeremy’s introduction. Can’t have been the mix that was on the programme that went to air.. can it?

    Have I Got News For You, on the other hand, was very good quality indeed.

  3. Nick: I thought I made that clear: my TV is only ever attached to a Mac Mini (which itself isn’t connected to a TV card), and a Nintendo Wii.

    Using a TV which is only being used as a monitor for a console/computer/DVD player isn’t a problem. If I watched broadcast TV on my television (whether through an ariel or a TV card in my Mac) then of course I’d need a TV license. In fact, the way the Licensing FAQ describes it is
    The law requires everyone, including students, to be covered by a licence if they use any device to receive television programmes as they’re being shown on TV.

    The interesting thing with iPlayer is that (as far as I can tell so far) it doesn’t require a license, any more than you’d need one to watch BBC DVDs, or BBC content on YouTube.

  4. I don’t think the Player contains live streaming of BBC TV channels yet. But when it does then I would say you would be liable for a licence fee – even if you don’t actually watch them live.

    There’s some ambiguity here. I was trying to find a link as I thought this was sorted out this year but I can’t find it.

    But there’s an easier analogy. The BBC News website has a button on it which enables you to watch News 24 live. Therefore if you have a computer with internet access you have the ability to watch live telly – and so are liable for a TV licence.

  5. Nick, are you saying that everyone in the UK with a computer and internet access needs a TV license, or just those that watch simulcast TV, and/or just those that have their computer to a television set?

    None of these seems likely, based on my current understanding. It does need clarification though, especially as using “any device to receive television programmes as they’re being shown on TV” might be an increasingly grey area if the BBC (and others) live-stream more content online.

    Your suggestion that if the iPlayer were to contain live streaming would make someone “liable for a licence fee – even if you don’t actually watch them live.” makes it sound as though the BBC is sneaking the need for a TV license for every computer owner in the country. I know you need the money, but seriously, that can’t be right.

  6. I must admit I love my licence fee, I’m happy to pay it. Because the alternative funding mechanism is advertising and that’s too disruptive.

    I’d even love it more if I could pay it wherever I was, gave me an account and let me watch programmes whichever country I was in, for travelling etc. And if it stopped the ads on the site which are just annoying in principle.

  7. Unfortunately it sounds as thought he BBC IS it is sneaking the need for a TV license for every computer owner with internet access.

    I’ve just compared the guidelines on the licensing website (, with that printed on my current TV licence, and it appears the the details are subtly, but worryingly different…

    Current TV licence: ‘ You need a TV licence to install or use any equipment to receive television programme services – for example a television set, video recorder, set-top box, PC with a broadcast card or any other TV receiving equipment’

    Licensing website: ‘You need a TV Licence to use any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, set-top boxes, video or DVD recorders, computers or mobile phones to watch or record TV programmes as they are being shown on TV.’

    The change is subtle, but seems have re-defined the requirement for a TV licence from the ability to receive TV programmes, to the ability to watch TV programmes as they are broadcast.

    Amusingly, it also suggests that if I made a video call on my mobile to Roo while in front of a live TV, he would need a license to take part! Now, where did I put Roos phone number….

  8. “as they are being shown on TV” does seem to be the key distinction, and that’s new.

    There’s a great media FAQ on the Guardian site. Key extract:

    while the new regulations might have succeeded in redefining the term “television” to mean any device capable of receiving it by any broadcast or quasi-broadcast means, they still define a “television programme service” as essentially a live, real-time broadcast stream. … while the regulations extend beyond traditional broadcasting to cover internet and mobile live streaming, receiving TV programmes on-demand, or say as part of an internet-based catch-up service, appears not to be covered.

    So, if I’ve got this right, the iPlayer (and other non-simulcast on-demand re-broadcasts) doesn’t require a TV license, even if you watch it with your computer plugged into a television set (just as if it were only plugged into a DVD/console). But as soon as you start watching live streamed content (like I was with the World Cup matches, or News 24 if that really is simulcast, I’ve no idea) then a license is required even if you’re watching it on your internet-enabled phone, or watch, or whatever.

    I agree, Stuart. It seems the key is whether it’s being received live, as it is broadcast.

  9. Roo, why do you think you should be able to watch BBC programmes (which you clearly enjoy) without paying for them?

    We each contribute (through our licence fee) to the cost of making those programmes – why should we do that for your benefit?

    I know your point is about what the letter of the licence agreement says or doesn’t say, but if YOU are watching Top Gear, YOU should be contributing to the cost of making it.

  10. Since you ask, I actually think I will get a TV license soon. Not just because I do want to contribute to the making of things like Top Gear, which I can finally just about enjoy online – see comments about for remarks on audio quality. (Top Gear is an interesting example, since it (primarily?) makes money from a commercial magazine and by selling it in other countries The fact they sell outside of the UK is what causes DRM to be an issue, but that’s another story).

    The BBC have a great role in the UK, and “the unique way they are funded” is what makes that possible. It should leave room for choice though, and it shouldn’t include bullying every resident. (Yes, I know this hassle isn’t strictly the BBC’s fault. It’s the TV Licensing agencies they contract.)

    I’m keeping an open mind. The iPlayer (and don’t forget other web-based things from other stations, like 4oD) as it stands today is still not a replacement for a TV + Tivo combination, which is what I’d probably go for it I did get a license. If iPlayer offered more content I actually want to watch, and both it and 4oD were already properly cross platform, I’d want a license, even if I didn’t strictly need one according to today’s law.

  11. Pingback: Roo
  12. Actually, a new feature I would like is an rss feed of all my recently watched programs, so that I could subscribe to my friends and see what was worth watching. Anyone at the BBC want to hack that up for me?

    Actually….. A greasemonkey script might be able to do the trick…. hmmm

  13. The new IPlayer has opened up a very grey area.
    You need a TV license if you receive and watch broadcast TV.
    You don’t need a TV license just because you have equipment capable of receiving broadcast television (otherwise Roo, and myself) would need one for the TV sitting in our lounge. So, just having a net friendly computer doesn’t mean you need a license. This principle should also extend to using the Iplayer/4od/ for watching material that was broadcast previously. Whether it does or not is the question! I haven’t found anything on either the TV licensing website, or the BBC website that makes this distinction, and clarifies the law.
    I did hear a radio interview with the head of future technologies at the BBC (and have read similar online comments) in which he enthusiastically states the number of broadband homes without a license is tiny-and so not a concern. I get the impression the BBC is writing off our small group-but of course the licensing guy is unlikely to take the same approach.

  14. Well, tonight I tried the iPlayer for the first time,

    I was wanting to watch A Question Of Sport from Sunday however this was not possible because I could not view any of the bbc’s shows,
    by looking through the A – Z, Catogories etc.

    So then i ended up watching some baliffs show –
    the first 6 minutes were great and the sound was great and the picture was pretty good considering it was full screen

    However it then took me another 30 mins to watch 15 minutes, has any one else had streaming troubles?

    Then i thought i could go for a shower and come back and watch the ending however when i went back to the time i wanted i had streaming problems again,

    why doesn’t it do it like youtube

    apart from that it was great yet was is it

    iPlayer like iTunes???

  15. Whats acctually happening is this guy roo is avoiding licence fees while enjoying previously broadcast material at the expense of others and is BREAKING THE LAW. Its quite simple if you want to watch what has cost money to produce you need a licence. Oh and Nick Reynolds from the BBC what are you doing about reporting this guy for breaking the law its quite simple here are his address details:

    [Roo says: I’ve removed my home address from the end of this comment]

  16. Gary, you’re completely and utterly wrong. It doesn’t matter whether the material has previously been broadcast-or whether it cost anything to produce. You don’t need a license to use IPlayer. You need a license to watch material as it is being broadcast. This means that you need a license to watch tv on the ITV website, and to watch stuff through 4oD that is being streamed as it is being broadcast.
    You also need a license if you want to watch match of the day online-only available as it’s being shown on traditional TV.
    So get your facts right before having a go at people.

  17. go here

    it says

    So a live simulcast over the web from the BBC – of, say, the Beijing Olympics – will require a TV licence, but watching an on-demand (non-live) stream or download through the BBC iPlayer will not.

    The same applies to ordinary television, if it’s NOT live broadcast you do NOT need a tv licence and you most certainly do NOT need a licence for playing dvd video games, vhs videos etc as that is nothing to do with broadcasts, tv has many uses.

  18. If you’re writing a blog you’ve a lot of spare time on your hands- enough to tune your TV and watch TV programmes on a TV like normal people. Stop whining and pay your license fee!

  19. Hi there,

    to Rachel, Andy, Gary and Paul.

    Cunt off, twats, and leave Roo alone – he’s doing absolutely nothing wrong by watching non-live TV programmes via Iplayer without a licence.


  20. Hi Duncan

    I’m torn between thanking you for being supportive and asking you to tone down the language. (“Cunt off, twats”, while charming in its own way, is a bit stronger than it needed to be).

  21. When will the BBC realise that the same technology that allows them to deliver their content , can also be used to control who watches it. Like “Enter your licence number to continue watching” has yet to appear on the screen.
    I am sure the millions who do pay for the TV Licence are very happy to fund free iPad or iWhatever viewing? Or are we to rely on everyone with the devices mentioned to have a conscience and buy a licence?
    The same goes for those watching iPlayer abroad ? One does not even need to register to access it .

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