I've spent the past couple of weeks poring over the BBC's iPlayer application. It's not perfect, but I'm solidly convinced it's the future of TV, or at least how I'll be watching it. It's fair to say that I've not had a whole lot of free time over the past two weeks, what with one thing and another. Leisure time has been at a real premium for me, but I've been finding myself going back to the same thing, time and time again.
My hand-crafted model of Steve Wozniak, made completely from old Violet Crumble wrappers.
No, not really. Just checking that you were paying attention. I've been spending my free time with an iPad propped up, watching the TV. Specifically, the TV programmes available through the BBC iPlayer App. I wrote a hands-on on the day it launched, so I won't reiterate everything I put in there, but the basics are the same as they were at launch. To its credit, there's already been a refresh of content, including some stuff that plays directly into my own personal biases; the more Patrick Troughton era the Beeb chooses to put on there, the more I'll watch it. Oddly enough, that's even with the DVDs nearby; it's just that convenient.
Who fanboy? Guilty as charged.
So what sits in the obvious negatives column? There's no Android version. That's a pity for the Android crowd, but it's not entirely surprising; the BBC's following the same kinds of logic that have meant the majority of software's been written for Windows first for the past two decades, simply because that's where the majority of the market is. It makes sense to target the low hanging fruit, and in this case those fruits are Apples. Sadly, there’s no Airplay facility, but it’s always possible the app might be updated to support it. I can't download and stream at the same time. These are, for the most part (and certainly for the way I'm watching) minor quibbles.
So why have I wasted so much time on old TV episodes? After all, I gave up on Foxtel a fair few years back; I'm not a big watcher of sports, tend to want to own the movies I love, and once you cut that out, there's not a lot on pay that doesn't seem to hit the endless repeats cycle very quickly. In the age of the PVR, that means that typically there's not much on Foxtel that I both want to watch and have never seen before. I recognise that I fit into a niche, and it just so happens that iPlayer suits that niche very nicely indeed, and does so in a perfectly legal way. That’s important to me, but it might not be to you.
Compelling viewing. Really.
Let's hit the obvious nail on the head here. People pirate television programs. Not in a small way, not in a subtle way, and not on a small scale. Yes, you can still do this, although there's an inherent risk in doing so, minuscule though it might be.
It's not the future of TV, though. Justify it however you choose to — in my experience some people will twist logic in all sorts of interesting ways to justify their choices — but it's not a model that can support TV in its current form. Even if you took on the argument that some people then buy box sets of the TV they download, it's not a sustainable model, simply because on the scale that TV is both produced and pirated, it would never make it to store shelves. TV production is expensive stuff, even low-grade 'reality' style TV, let alone anything with a semblance of production values, and that's got to be paid for in some respect. Perhaps TV of the future will adapt to large scale piracy, but right now with costs being what they are, it’s a money sink, not an advertising avenue.
Then there's the option of catch-up TV. Here I've got to award a gold star to the ABC and its iView application. Take a guess which model it's built on? That's right, the BBC iPlayer. Moreover, it's a service we already pay for through taxes. Once you skip to the commercial side of the fence, however, things get murkier. As an example, my daughter wanted to watch an episode of The Amazing Race that she'd missed during the week on Channel Seven last weekend. It's on 7's catchup service, which seems fine, but the experience of watching it was marred both by playback issues (which could be ISP based, to be fair) and an overabundance of ads. So many ads. Yes, I've got to toe a fine line here, as without advertising Gizmodo wouldn't exist, but there's a line between ad-supported and programming that intermittently blips into existence in-between huge ad blocks.
I've heard some comments, both here and socially that folks would happily pay for the iPlayer that's presented in the UK (again, there are VPN ways to get that, but again, not a sustainable model). For what it's worth, I'd do the same in a heartbeat, but given some of the complaints I've heard about the Australian iPlayer App price, I wonder if those folks know the price of a UK TV licence. Currently it's £145.50; at current exchange rates that'd be roughly $230 per year. $89.99 for a service that doesn't feature last night's telly but does offer a much wider range of classic TV is rather a bargain under those circumstances.
That's where the iPlayer app's value really lies. At $9 a month, it's considerably cheaper than a full UK licence (although if anyone at the BBC can hook me up, I'm perfectly serious about paying for a UK licence for the purposes of legitimately watching BBC TV), and seriously competitive with Pay TV — for me at least. Yes, the iPlayer's showing old programmes, but not all of them are ones that are repeated every day for the next six weeks. They're on demand. And they suit my tastes nicely, which is where TV's headed, just as the Internet has done — into niche areas.