Secret of the iPlayer’s Success: No DRM

It’s been a great week for the BBC’s iPlayer project: The Beeb has just announced that the iPlayer is now attracting 550,000 daily views on average. The iPlayer is also now officially available on the Wii, making it the first streaming service by a major broadcaster on any of the three consoles.

BBC Future Media and Technology Group Controller Eric Huggers explained that the broadcaster ended up choosing the Wii instead of the PS3 or XBox 360 because Sony and Microsoft had too many demands about the iPlayer implementation. “They want control of the look, the feel and the experience; they want it done within their shop, and their shop only,” he told the BBC’s own blog.

Playstation users apparently couldn’t care less about these conflicts. One of them just developed an unofficial iPlayer implementation for the PS3. His hack was made possible by the fact that the BBC has quietly abandoned streaming media DRM.

The iPlayer generated 17.2 million stream and download requests in March, up from about 11 million in January. Successful shows like Dr. Who easily get 150,000 requests in a single day, and there is still room for growth: The BBC clocked a million stream and download requests on April 1 alone.

The broadcaster doesn’t reveal the percentage of streams versus downloads, but it’s a safe bet to assume that the streams by far outnumber the downloads. The BBC experimented with a download-only version of the iPlayer for months with limited success, but the service really took off once it introduced a web-based Flash player. One of the secrets behind this success is that the BBC isn’t crippling its Flash streams with DRM.

Adobe’s latest Flash version 9 is supporting encrypted media streams in order to lock out third party players and stream capturing applications. iPlayer users however have reported that the BBC is using Flash version 8 for their web streams since December. The broadcaster also started to reencode and optimize all of its video for Flash 7 in order to make the Wii version work since the Wii’s Flash Lite player doesn’t support Flash 9 yet. In fact, there is even a completely DRM- and Flash-free MP4 version of every show available for the iPlayer’s iPhone version.

Hackers have used these custom versions to port the iPlayer to other devices. is based on the Wii streams plus some basic CSS and Javascript hacking. “It only took a day to produce,” according to the site. Others have figured out how to access the iPhone MP4 videos via Linux and VLC , which means that it’s only a matter of time before these videos will pop up on Apple TV boxes, third-party cell phones and other devices.

All of this doesn’t mean that the BBC is completely opening up the flood gates. The iPlayer still isn’t available to viewers outside of the UK, and the official download manager still uses Windows Media DRM. But the broadcaster has gotten its priorities straight and decided to forgo absolute control for maximum exposure. The numbers certainly show that this strategy is working. Video startups and TV networks alike should take notice.