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BBC Consultation on "On-Demand Syndication" [Jun. 16th, 2010|07:16 pm]
Carefully, Correctly Wrong
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There's a new a BBC Trust consultation into On-Demand Syndication, by which they mean software like iPlayer. This is an important thing to respond to, and here are some reasons why and some sample responses.

As I'm sure you know by now, I don't use the BBC's iPlayer software, because it's proprietary. Until quite recently, I used free software called get_iplayer to access the iPlayer service without using their software. This worked much better for me, and frankly get_iplayer was a fantastic piece of coding. However, the BBC have routinely started to block it.

As a license fee payer, I believe I should be able to use whatever software I like to access the content the BBC provide - in the same way that I can use any TV or Freeview box I like (if I had a usable signal, which I don't...). The BBC is adamant that it should be in the software development business, and more specifically to have a monopoly in that business on access to BBC programmes. This consultation is a chance to persuade the BBC Trust that the BBC Executive have got it wrong, and that the best model is to provide access to BBC content and allow developers to create software to view it. Please respond to the consultation - my answers are below which explain my opinion on a point-by-point basis, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't just copy and paste them.

(as an aside, on the matter of using whatever TV, Freeview box etc. you want to watch BBC programmes... not for long. The Open Rights Group are alerting people that OfCom have allowed the BBC to artificially restrict the market on HD Freeview receivers by using Digital Restrictions Management to encrypt programme information... but that's probably a rant for another post)

My answers are blockquoted like this.

Some third parties such as content aggregators or device manufacturers would prefer to have the freedom to choose exactly which BBC programmes to use on their platforms.

The BBC Executive agrees that audiences should be able to find BBC content through other platforms and devices, but think the potential for syndication to reach new audiences in this way needs to be balanced against the need to ensure the editorial integrity that audiences expect from the BBC.

They believe that viewers’ interests will be better served if BBC programmes are always presented in context within a BBC 'package' because: this is more likely to help viewers to discover niche and surprising content; will provide good value for money; and will ensure that the BBC retains control of editorial compliance, standards and the integrity of the BBC’s brand.

The BBC Executive would therefore like the Trust’s on-demand Syndication Policy amended to make clear that BBC programmes should always be made available in the context of a BBC package (such as a BBC TV channel (BBC1 for example) or via the BBC iPlayer on a PC, TV or mobile phone) in order to deliver the public purposes more effectively.

A further alternative is that manufacturers should be free to develop their own versions of the iPlayer or other technology (known as 'self-build') to show BBC content.

The BBC Executive do not think this should be allowed because they do not think the BBC would be able to ensure editorial standards or the high quality that viewers expect from the BBC.

Q1: What are your views on this proposal?

BBC programmes are already clearly branded as such, usually with watermarks on the screen or notices at the beginning or end.

If the BBC wishes to make sure that programmes are clearly identifiable as BBC programs, they do not need to do anything else; they can syndicate programmes in their entirety, and those programs will be identified as part of the BBC brand.

If the BBC wishes, it could introduce license terms that make it clear that programmes should be presented to users by a syndication service as complete units (even if the software used to deliver them allows skipping etc.) which would make any routine attempts to remove watermarks or chop off notices a violation of the license terms, enforceable under existing laws.

Making a complicated model for syndicators to gain access to BBC content, or using technical measures to try and prevent modification of BBC content, will be counterproductive. They will discourage competition and innovation, and not stop anybody genuinely determined to achieve this.

Q2: Do you agree with the BBC Executive that the Trust should place more emphasis on value for money in its syndication policy?

The BBC Executive is concerned about the cost implications for licence fee payers of a growing number of platforms and devices on which the BBC might be expected to make its on-demand content available. They would like the Trust to include explicitly consideration of the costs imposed on the BBC and Licence Fee monies in its syndication policy.

The BBC should not be providing content for a growing number of platforms or devices. The BBC should be providing a consistent interface (API) to programmes, and allow the developers of those platforms and devices to work out how best to use the programmes on that platform or device.

The only thing the BBC should consider is which open formats to provide its programmes and programme information. The cost of providing this data is trivial compared to the cost of developing for multiple devices and platforms, and therefore cost-effectiveness ceases to be a concern under this model.

The BBC Executive agree that wide syndication is good for audiences, but they are concerned about the cost of developing different versions of packages like the iPlayer for growing numbers of platforms and devices. To make the iPlayer or other packages of content widely available across a range of platforms in a more cost effective way they propose to develop 'standard' software (notably for the iPlayer) that can work on many devices. Manufacturers can build this into their products when designing them. The BBC would publish details of how decisions on which standard software products to develop would be taken.

Not all devices would be able to use standard software, however. In these cases, the BBC Executive thinks the fairest way to set priorities for non-standard software development is by looking at potential audience reach. To be transparent the BBC might publish its criteria for deciding which devices to customise the iPlayer for (for example by specifying minimum numbers of users).

Q3: What do you think about this proposal?

The BBC should concentrate on providing access to its programmes and programme information in open formats. There would then be a competitive market to develop quality software to access its programmes, for a variety of platforms.

By prioritising against niche markets such as free software users, alternative computing architectures etc. the BBC fails in its objective to provide content as widely as possible. Imagine what would happen if they only made programmes for the five most popular brands of TV set!

The BBC should provide the content, and let others provide the software to access that content.

Q4: Do you think that the BBC should, in principle, be prepared to invest in developing special non-standard technology for other devices at the BBC’s expense?


If the BBC is going to insist on providing its own player software, it should provide the player software for any and all platforms technically capable of using the content.

The easiest way to do this would be to provide a free software / open source solution which can be customised for any platform by that platform's development community.

Q5: Is audience reach the best criterion for setting priorities? If so, what number of potential users should be taken as the threshold?


1 potential user should be the threshold, if the BBC is going to retain a monopoly on access to its services.

Q6: Should the BBC also publish its criteria for prioritising any non-standard software development?


An alternative is that, provided the BBC has the resources available, a manufacturer would have to pay the BBC's costs for the development of a customised iPlayer that worked for its platform.

Q7: What do you think about this?

This would allow the BBC to operate an effective veto on platforms by insisting that the development costs are too high. A better option would be to require the BBC to tender out all development work for player software to reduce the cost.

Q8: What do you think about this?

Editorial standards apply to the creation of the content, not its distribution or playback.

This is clearly the best way to ensure a free and open market to provide the best value and service to BBC employees,and also minimises cost to the BBC, making it the most cost-effective solution.

The BBC would be free to endorse particular players, or to make a particular player downloadable directly from the BBC's website - perhaps one they have developed themselves. This way they could retain some influence over what they feel is the best experience for BBC viewers, but allow others to hold different opinions.

Q9: Have you any other comments to make about the BBC Executive’s proposed on-demand changes? Or about the way the BBC syndicates content generally?

I am a license fee payer who currently can get no benefit from my license. Since the digital switch-over I've been unable to receive broadcast television signals, and I do not use proprietary software such as Flash, so the iPlayer software is unusable to me - not least because most of my computers run GNU/Linux and not on Intel chips, meaning that none of the software made available by the BBC will operate on my platforms.

Technically, if I could use the BBC-provided software, I would not need to pay a license fee if I did not watch live streams. However, I have chosen to pay the license fee in the past to help fund excellent content from the BBC. I used to use the free software project get_iplayer to access BBC programmes. However, this has recently been blocked by the BBC, and I feel that I am paying my license fee for no return.

The BBC must make BBC programmes available to all license fee payers (I am not concerned about making them available to non-license-fee payers personally). It must use open standards and free software, and avoid Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). This is the only way to create an equal-opportunity cost-effective market to best deliver value to the public.


[User Picture]From: softfruit
2010-06-16 06:27 pm (UTC)
Can't I just go for a short and cheery "DRM? Youse all a bunch of feckers." rather than this sophisticated reasoning lark?
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[User Picture]From: diffrentcolours
2010-06-16 06:32 pm (UTC)
To be fair, this consultation isn't about DRM (although the iPlayer does use Flash DRM to block third-party software, that's a fairly obscure technical point).

The general approach is "The BBC should be in the content generation business, not in the Internet video streaming business. Let people who are better at the latter save you money by doing it for you, and you concentrate your resources on the former."
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[User Picture]From: softfruit
2010-06-16 06:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, i'm just Very Annoyed at the continual and deliberate breaking of download software, given how poor and breaky streaming is.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-16 10:55 pm (UTC)

Content generation

The BBC hasn't entirely been in the content generation business since the Birt years. There's an awful lot of 'BBC' programming that someone else owns the rights to.

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