Coming Soon to Apple TV: The BBC iPlayer?

The BBC is thinking about porting its iPlayer software to OS X to allow direct downloads of its programming to the Apple TV. DRM and licensing issues could make this a complicated exercise, but the broadcaster seems determined to enter the living room of broadband-connected Britons.

The iPlayer itself has been ridiculed for the use of restrictive DRM, but many users don’t seem to mind: The BBC just revealed that it clocked 3.5 million program streams and downloads in the two weeks following the iPlayer’s official launch on Christmas Day. The Beeb was able to get a total of one million viewers to use the software during that time.

The broadcaster’s director of future media and technology, Ashley Highfield, hinted at the idea of an iPlayer for Apple TV devices on the BBC Internet Blog this week. Highfield called the launch of the revamped Apple TV encouraging, adding that: “This, coupled with Apple’s (long anticipated) move to a rental model, means that we can look to getting BBC iPlayer onto this platform too.”

The rental function matters to the BBC because it adds a long-missing feature to Apple’s FairPlay DRM: After a certain time frame, content can now be deactivated. The BBC’s iPlayer uses Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM to make shows available for seven days and then transforms each file into unplayable digital garbage. These limited windows are a concession to rights holders that don’t want their content to be given away for free.

Highfield seems to think that the Apple TV will now offer the iPlayer similar options. “We should be able to use the rental functionality to allow our programmes to be downloaded, free, but retained for a time window, and then erased,” he wrote. He didn’t explain how he’d persuade Apple to open up its platform and DRM system, however, something the company has yet to do for anyone.

Of course, the BBC could just go the Jaman route and hack itself onto the Apple TV. Technically it’s even possible to hijack Fairplay and use it for your own content, a service DVD hacker Jon Lech Johansen has been offering with his reverse engineering startup doubleTwist Ventures. But it strikes us as highly unlikely that the government-funded BBC would do something like that.

The Apple TV isn’t the only living room device the BBC is eyeing. The broadcaster is set to launch a TV version of the iPlayer on set-top boxes of the British cable outlet Virgin Cable this spring. A preview of the service has already found its way onto YouTube and can be seen embedded above. The PC version of the software seems to work OK as well. All in all, 250,000 programs are reportedly being streamed each day, with shows outside of the broadcaster’s Top 50 making up almost half of the requests.

Dirk-Willem van Gulik, the BBC’s new chief technical architect that was just fired from his CTO post at Joost, is also supposed to look at new ways to enter the living room. BBC Future Media and Technology Group Controller Erik Huggers said in a press release today: “The BBC recognises that IP-connectivity is quickly moving beyond the personal computer. This appointment signals our commitment to providing licence-fee payers access to BBC content however they want it.