BBC iPlayer: An American Perspective

The past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of attending to my NewTeeVee duties from jolly old London, England — enabling me to indulge in playing with BBC’s Flash-based web player. While I’ve always had a high regard for Hulu’s smooth streaming and well-designed user interface, I’ve been really blown away by iPlayer — it takes the Hulu standard to a new level, emphasizing high quality to deliver the BBC’s radio and TV content for the web audience.

Video play is smooth and without stuttering (possibly even better than Hulu), and because the BBC is funded by licence fees and taxes, all episodes are commercial free, matching approximately with the content currently running on the broadcast networks — which is incredibly easy to navigate and search through, thanks to the clean layout and organization.

And the iPlayer solution to blocking non-kid-appropriate content is simple but user-friendly — it takes only two or three additional clicks to access the first episode of sexy period drama Fanny Hill, thanks to an opt-in parental control block that password-locks access to more adult programming when enabled.

The overall experience is that of a high-quality digital showcase for the BBC’s content, constantly refreshed by new programming. The one major feature lacking is the ability to clip episodes and send links to those segments to friends. But as a “catch up” service for TV fans, it’s really sublime.

According to people I’ve spoken with, there’s considerable pressure for the BBC to use its public funds to create original British shows, not just import American series — so the only American production being offered was Heroes (which runs on BBC2, the second-tier network). But if you’re a fan of British television, it’s definitely well worth the effort to locate a proxy server instead of relying on torrents (something I’ll be looking into upon my return to California). I sampled about three or four programs in the course of experimenting with this player. Despite the presence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Head, you’d be well-advised to steer clear of Merlin. However, the BBC/HBO co-production Little Britain USA is a pretty hilarious send-up of American culture.

The peculiar nature of its funding — unsupported by ads, free to all with a UK IP address because of taxpayer funds — means that it’s hard to imagine replicating this service in the United States. But a network like HBO, with the use of a simple sign-in procedure, would do well to emulate this system. iPlayer’s success can be transformed into one simple lesson: a working product is what matters.

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