Sunday, 5 August 2007

iPlayer: A Review. Of Sorts.

So, the BBC's latest beta of iPlayer has been unveiled to a select band of alpha geeks, and somehow BrokenTV has found itself on the right side of the binary velvet rope. How does it measure up as a Video on Demand system, and how does it compare to Certain Other Television Download Services? BrokenTV puts on its special investigating hat and takes a look.

(Note: We'd written all of the text for this while taking screengrabs along the way. Infuriatingly, the STUPID USELESS computer we use to compile the site crashed with all the pictures in Photoshop, still unsaved. And we're too lazy to take them all again. Still, hurrah for draft autosaves, eh?)

(We've ended up having to hotlink this pic from Wikipedia. As we hate it when people hotlink to other sites, rudely sapping their bandwidth, we feel massively guilty about this.)

It's fairly well documented by now that the software is only available to people running Windows XP, or to people with Vista who are quite handy at tinkering with settings, but it's also worth pointing out that you need to be using Internet Explorer to use the interface. Hopefully this will be remedied before the final version is unveiled, because we much prefer Firefox, and we'd wager a sizable proportion of people likely to use the iPlayer do too. Alongside the username and password supplied in the email from the iPlayer team, you'll also need to be registered for, which only takes a moment. The whole select-a-programme interface is handled over the iPlayer website, and it's only when you select a programme you want to download that an option to install the iPlayer client is offered. With a minimal bit of meddling, we were able to get it up and running. Once you've got everything out of the way, your next download should be much simpler.

The selection of programmes on offer is pretty limited, offering a much less varied selection than the earlier BBC iMP trial. That's a pretty big minus point as far as we're concerned, especially when we'd heard that the earlier trial (which we weren't privy to) offered such delights as Emu's Broadcasting Company, The (1986) Domesday Project, and quite excellently "Programme Links for BBC1: 17 Nov 1969". Hopefully, once the full system is up and running, archive material will become available. We'd only signed up for the beta because we so badly wanted some of that EBC and hot continuity action. Until more archive material is added, it’s all a little bit like arriving at a party only to find all of the booze has gone, save for a four-pack of Tesco Value lager. But anyway.

After selecting a programme to download (we've chosen single episode of Still Game on offer, as opposed to the ten (TEN!) different episodes of Two Pints Of Sodding Lager, for chuff's sake), the iPlayer client takes over. The download rattles along quite nicely, and a half-hour sitcom takes up around 100mb of space. That's quite an improvement on the 170mb per half-hour show on Divx or Xvid from a file-sharing site, and is sure to be quite handy for anyone saving their programmes to a laptop with a modest hard drive.

The picture size on playback looks a bit disappointing when viewed in the default window size, but knocking it into fullscreen mode proves perfectly watchable (and better than our rubbish mobile phone photo made it look. Except, erm, we lost all the pictures that we took anyway). And... that's about it, really.

All of this is dodging a more pertinent question, though. If the service is restricted to recent broadcasts, who exactly would be using this service that regularly? It could prove to be useful for catching an episode of something you’ve missed, but there are plenty of other options for doing just that: catching one of the numerous repeats scattered throughout the week for most programmes; waiting about two weeks after the end of the series before the whole lot is repeated on BBC Three or Four; waiting about eight weeks until the whole run appears on UKTV Gold; downloading the programme from somewhere else and not having to put up with it self-destructing in seven days; waiting for the DVD boxset to hit the shops two days after the end of the series; waiting a bit longer for the RRP of the DVD boxset to be slashed in HMV because they’ve gone and made too many of them. Or, alternatively, just getting on with your life instead.

There seems to be a kind of mass hysteria with the traditional broadcasters at the moment, where they seem to be utterly petrified that somebody somewhere might miss one single episode of their output. A journey through an EPG usually takes in an ever expanding array of ‘+1’ channels, just in case you narrowly missed the live coverage of Halfway Housemate Jonti farting in bed the first time around. Each +1 channel offers yet another chance to see the fifth repeat of the week for a spin-off from a reality makeover show that barely cobbled together 4% of the audience share when shown in primetime on a flagship channel.

Forgot to record The Real Footballers’ Wives Uncut Extra when it was first broadcast using your stupidly-easy-to-operate PVR, which you can even set if you’re hundreds of miles away by using your mobile phone? Never mind, you can use that same mobile phone to watch a repeat going out live, even though you’re clearly outside and therefore doing something less boring instead. And they’re winding down the mobile phone TV service anyway because no-one actually wanted it.

So, if you’ve managed to miss When Pets Go Ballroom Dancing at every single one of the eighty-six different opportunities to do so, quite why you’d be so very keen to go online to watch it, we’re not quite sure.

What with there being so many alternatives to television nowadays – the internets, videogames, you all know the drill by now – it’s as if broadcasters are increasingly determined to remind everyone that they’re still around. Back in the 1980s, back when Auntie’s flagship still featured a hyphen, it would have been unimaginable that the Corporation would spend good money on a billboard campaign reminding us that BBC-1 exists. The five main channels have decided we need every station ident for the main channels to be a twenty to thirty second epic, as if to say “There! You don’t get things like that preceding YouTube clips. REMAIN IMPRESSED WITH US”. As if seeing a thousand planets explode into the shape of the BBC Two ‘2’ makes the coverage of live bowls it precedes somehow more exciting.

(We feel less bad about hotlinking to the BBC's website though. Hey, our licence fee probably covers the hosting costs of a 15kb jpeg.)

In other news, BBC Sport have proudly proclaimed that the new season of Match Of The Day will be marked by, not better pundits or friendlier scheduling, but new logos for both the Saturday and Sunday night shows, “updated to give them a more contemporary and three-dimensional feel”. Even better, “the logos will also have a much greater prominence throughout the programmes”. Phew, eh?

Not that any of that’s needed. If we hear Mark Lawrenson make a monumentally tortuous pun and then wait for a few uncomfortable seconds of silence to pass before John Motson says ‘heh’, we know we’re watching Match Of The Day.

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