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Watching the iPlayer Around The World: BBC, Meet VPN

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Stephen Fry chats with Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear.
Thanks to geographic restrictions, the BBC makes it difficult for Americans to tune in to Jeremy Clarkson's jokes on Top Gear about how fat Americans are.
The British Broadcasting Corporation’s online video effort, the iPlayer, keeps setting viewership records with the youngest generation contributing to the UK dominating online video viewership in Europe. You can access it via Boxee, on the Apple TV, Wii, PlayStation, Internet-connected televisions, and even on your iPhone. But only in the United Kingdom. Surprisingly enough, a nation once known for ruling a large portion of the world is still keeping its publicly funded, government-sponsored media organization from expanding its reach beyond the white cliffs of Dover.

To be fair, in a response to questions sent via email, BBC iPlayer Publicist Daniel Maynard confirmed that the network does use geographic blocking software for the iPlayer site, but made it clear that “TV content on BBC iPlayer is only available within the UK, however Radio programmes are available globally,” so you can at least listen to the news. But no Top Gear, East Enders, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, cricket tests, or upcoming Winter Olympics coverage. What’s a fat yankee with a love of fried fish, malt vinegar and charming vernacular to do?

Turns out it is possible to access the iPlayer in the commonwealth and beyond — basically by pretending to be British. Or at least, pretending to have an IP address located in the British Isles. And after the standing ovation of acclaim I was rewarded with after pointing out how to use the free, online virtual private network service from Hotspot Shield to access Hulu from outside the United States, a loophole which was quickly closed, I figured I’d better hedge my bets and offer a choice of options.

Proxies: Using a Firefox browser add-on like FoxyProxy and lists of free, anonymous proxy servers in the UK, you can successfully pretend to be at a computer in England downing alcopops and pining for the Jedwards. However, proxy servers come and go, the latency means browsing the site for shows can be frustrating, and streaming video and server-side caching aren’t the best of friends. Additionally, the iPlayer uses the Flash plugin to stream video, and the plugin can snoop your actual IP address and block you (to its credit, the iPlayer doesn’t seem to bother doing this).

Tor: You can also use the Tor network to obfuscate your identity and location. Blogger Cherie Hurwitz has a handy guide that uses Tor and FoxyProxy to access the iPlayer through a relay based in the UK. The list of Tor relays seem to be much more stable and reliable than free, anonymous proxy servers. However, by default the Flash plugin is disabled because of the possibility of IP sniffing mentioned above. Even if you’re running a browser through virtual machine applications like VMWare, your real IP might be found and video blocked.

VPN: Interestingly, a number of VPN services are actively advertising themselves as methods for circumventing geographic restrictions to allow access to sites like Hulu or the iPlayer, so there is clearly some demand. In my tests using the free trial from UK Proxy Server (which naturally also offers proxy server connections), it was the easiest, fastest way to access the iPlayer from San Francisco, with no software to download.

But most VPN services charge a fee for continued use, usually a few dollars (or pounds, or euros) a month. And though I haven’t been able to test it, the iPhone supports VPN connections, meaning you might just be able to watch BBC content on the go — though mobile devices might eventually report your GPS coordinates along with your IP, and report it to apps like the upcoming Rewatch. And it is easy for software and site administrators to discover and blacklist IPs that originate from VPN servers (again, to its credit, the BBC seems less vigilant about this than Hulu, which actively blocks access from VPN providers).

File sharing: Of course, if you’re looking for your favorite BBC programming, you don’t actually have to use the iPlayer. Just search your favorite BitTorrent site for torrent listings. You won’t be able to stream content, but at least it’s available around the world, is still available a week after airing (unlike many shows on iPlayer) and free from digital rights management restrictions.

Now, why isn’t the iPlayer available outside of the UK? Firstly, because the programming is funded by British citizens through the Licence Fee, which is £142.50 a year. Though the BBC Trust increased the budget for online services last year, Web spending accounts for only around five percent of that money. Any bandwidth costs from beyond their borders would essentially be subsidized by Britons which the Trust probably wouldn’t favor.

What about BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC that broadcasts channels like BBC America? Contracts. BBC America earns revenue both from advertising and through carriage fees paid by cable providers. Said cable providers would not be pleased if the BBC made their content available on-demand, free of charge and without broadcast windows that are shorter than the international release schedules.

Still, there is the matter of distribution agreements with independent producers. Like most existing television networks, the BBC has had only a few years to renegotiate existing contracts — much less decide on new standard legal language and terms for online and international rights. And since nobody knows how to value, much less profit from, online distribution, it will probably be a while before those rules are outlined.

I sent an email to the Trust and Worldwide asking about plans to offer the iPlayer internationally, but due to time zones, couldn’t expect a quick response. But for now, I’d like to offer a suggestion: Instead of letting VPN providers make all the money, offer international subscriptions to the iPlayer to let anyone pay for a license. The cost of the television production and online portion thereof, approximately $9 a month, happens to be what one might expect to pay for a fast, reliable VPN service. While I’m not personally a fan of paywalls, easy, expensive access is better than difficult, expensive access, much less no access at all.

And if leaving money on the table isn’t incentive enough, anglophiles can always watch live, online, commercial-free, English-language news anywhere in the world thanks to the cheese-eating surrender monkeys across the channel at France24, which is specifically funded by the French government in order to offer a francophilic counterpoint to the BBC and CNN.

Nothing against the French! But if having to make a tasteless joke that a bunch of soap-dodging, frog-eating Frenchmen are beating the Beeb at cultural imperialism online is what it takes to convince Sun readers to support making the service more widely available, so be it.

7 Responses to “Watching the iPlayer Around The World: BBC, Meet VPN”

  1. I use a VPN solution. Was told OpenVPN was the way to go for stability, security, and speed. Found very good one here at

    Have to say that while i got it mainly for protection on public wifi areas, i love the fact that while travlling i can see content from home.

    Technology will always be finding uses other than what their core purpose was, and technology will equally always be breaking down geographic boundaries.

  2. Hey Jackson,

    To your point about BBC America distribution through cable, Fancast is now starting to put up full episodes of shows like Top Gear and Kitchen Nightmares that Comcast customers can watch free as part of their subscription.

    In the example of Top Gear, we are adding new episodes from season 13 as soon as they air on the linear BBC America network. Jeremy Clarkson fans can get the first two episodes from that new season available here:

    Tom (from Fancast)

  3. I completely agree with your comment about the vpn fees and the fact that they should be going to the BBC. I use a vpn and it is an exceptionally good service. But I’d happily pay the same money ($69 per year) to the BBC instead. I know rights have also been used as an excuse for limiting distribution to the UK. But the programming available through the iPlayer is (almost without exception) not available here in the US – ever. Not now. Not in the future and not on DVD (I appreciate a few shows like Top Gear are but I’d suggest that sort of content is less than 5% of the iPlayer output). And even then the content is usually only available for 7 days. A very short window. So this is a potential new revenue stream for both the BBC AND the rights holder. Come on just go to all the rights holders, negotiate a new agreement covering this play again window outside the UK, and then make the iPlayer available through a pay system. Who knows it might also provide some incentive for US factual programming to get better :-)

  4. Excellent article, but a tad naive about the rights situation in the UK (and online in general)…

    Even in the UK the BBC only has online rights for its programming for between seven and thirty days – the rights then revert to the content producer. The content producer will then work with a distributor to market the content internationally (BBC Worldwide is one such distributor). And that’s before considering the re-transmission of sports events, format shows and feature films which have their own rights positions.

    The rights owners have no clear digital route to market at present, so will almost always bundle the online rights with the broadcast rights.

    However, there are a number of services which are likely to become available internationally online in the near future based on the BBC America format; these include Hulu UK, Seesaw and services based on the BBC’s own Project Canvas.

    In the meantime, happy geospoofing!