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BBC: Cross-Platform iPlayer With Adobe, Free WiFi Access; Highfield: Won’t “Beggar Digital Future”

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The BBC today is announcing two separate deals to increase access to its online content in the UK: one with Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) to stream content online using Flash; and another with The Cloud to offer its online content free of connection charges at all 7,500 Cloud-operated hotspots in the UK. At a briefing about the plans, Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of future media and technology, covered a lot of ground including the iPlayer’s future amid upcoming budget cuts, iPlayer finances, and plans for international, syndication and broadband HD. Some of the highlights:

Cross-platform iPlayer: The Adobe deal means that iPlayer — the BBC’s catch-up TV service — finally will be available on Macintosh and Linux operating systems as well as Windows. Since its soft launch earlier this year, iPlayer has faced criticism for not being platform-neutral. But, as Highfield told PC:UK last month, this new extension of the service will cover only streamed content; Windows is still required for downloads. Also, the Flash initiative only covers future digital content; material already formatted for Windows Media, for example, will not be retranslated into Flash.

Financing iPlayer: Highfield says, in total, £131 million ($268 million) has been earmarked over the next five years to pay for the iPlayer service — to cover all costs related to technology, distribution, rights, building the service and user interface. “We’re happy to say that we’ve proven value for money.” He said the BBC will not be paying The Cloud for the free access of BBC content at its hotspots: “The Cloud very much see this as a way of driving business.” (The Cloud just announced a different kind of free access deal with UK McDonalds; the chain is subsidizing free WiFi access.)

BBC budget cuts: The announcements come in the same week that Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, is scheduled to go before the BBC Trust governing body to discuss budget cuts. These reportedly could include layoffs of 2,000-2,800 employees and almost certainly will cover resources in the digital area; one of the target areas for cutbacks will be the news division, already undergoing an integration between broadcast and online. Asked if the iPlayer investment will be safe in light of the budget cuts that need to be made, Highfield said: “Is anything safe? No. But I strongly believe, as does Mark and the rest of the board, that we do not intend to beggar the digital future [of the BBC].” He said he couldn’t comment any further until the Trust meeting on Wednesday.

International agenda and syndication of iPlayer: Highfield told PC:UK that the BBC is still working on an arrangement via BBC Worldwide for commercialising the iPlayer BBC Worldwide (the separate, overseas commercial arm) is working on developing its own iPlayer-like service for outside the UK. A plan slated to go to the BBC Trust for approval at the end of this month calls for a spring 2008 launch. At home, the BBC is also working on trials to run the iPlayer over the Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) cable network; and to embed it in third-party sites: the first of these will be running BBC News on the Telegraph’s site links to iPlayer downloads for shows mentioned on, primarily in TV listings. A Facebook beta also is currently underway.

HD plans and strife with ISPs: On ISP relations: “This has been overblown. We have an extremely good relationship…the iPlayer so far has had no significant impact on Internet traffic.” On HD: “We are moving as quickly as possible and are already talking to ISPs,” says Highfield. He said it wasn’t likely that HD content will be streamed soon because of bandwidth constraints, focusing instead on downloads “in the wee hours of the morning.” (This also means that Mac and Linux users won’t get access to the HD content since the downloading is still only exclusive to Windows.)

Mobile: Highfield said that the BBC is continuing with its 3G streaming trials but that content probably won’t be available on all phones, “just the most prevalent devices” most likely to be used for viewing video content, such as the Sony (NYSE: SNE) PSP and the Nokia (NYSE: NOK) N95. Mobile users with WiFi-enabled handsets will be able to stream video at Cloud hotspots but downloads will be limited to Windows-based PCs.