BBC’s repeat business

Beeb's iMP will let viewers download shows

LONDON — The BBC has dubbed it “Martini Media,” a reference to its availability “any time, any place,” but commercial rivals might need a drop of the hard stuff, rather than a cocktail, after considering the implications of the pubcaster’s latest high-tech land grab.

Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s head of new media, last week announced the next step in the evolution of the pubcaster’s interactive Media Player (iMP), which seeks to do for couch potatoes what Apple’s iTunes has done for iPod-addicted music fans.

Starting in September, 5,000 homes will participate in a three-month trial giving viewers the opportunity to catch up on TV shows they missed for up to seven days after they aired.

Since digital TV reared its head in the second half of the 1990s, the BBC has had ambitions to provide auds with a catch-up service.

At one time, the BBC considered devoting a digital TV channel to what was then called Catch Up TV.

That went by the wayside but, thanks to the spread of broadband in the U.K. — now in around a third of British homes — the BBC’s dream may be about to become a reality.

The experiment is being run in collaboration with Siemens Business Services, BBC Broadcast and Kontiki.

Auds with broadband will be able to download the programs onto their home computers and watch at their leisure.

After seven days the shows will be automatically erased from viewers’ computers.

To avoid piracy, digital rights management software will prevent users emailing the files to other computer users or sharing them via disc.

The BBC was embarrassed earlier this year when a pirated copy of the first episode of the revived “Dr Who” was downloaded from the Internet.

Around 190 hours of TV, including local shows and rights-cleared films, will be made available.

Provided there are not too many teething problems, a full launch could follow next year.

“iMP could just be the iTunes for the broadcast industry, enabling our audience to access our TV and radio programs on their terms — any time, any place, any how,” says Highfield.

“We’ll see what programs appeal in this new world and how people search, sort, snack and savor our content in the broadband world.”

Highfield thinks take-up might stall without high-quality content to attract subscribers. He hopes the iMP (already familiar to BBC radio fans who can listen to shows at any time via the Internet) will tackle this problem.

However, there is still the tricky problem of rights clearance, and the potential impact on digital webs like UKTV (a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Flextech), which relies on repeats of popular BBC fare like “The Office” that could soon be available via the Internet.

“The BBC are doing this as a three-month experiment because they want to reassure rights owners that legal downloads are not the massive threat everybody thinks they are,” says a leading U.K. new media player.

“They also need to be careful about not alienating the commercial sector more than they already have,” adds the source. “Private rivals will be a bit nervous about this.”

The BBC, in the midst of negotiations with the U.K. government that will determine the level of its future funding, must tread carefully to avoid bad publicity.

In the U.K. commercial broadcasters, telcos and others are investing big money into establishing how TV will be watched once digital media becomes dominant.

They do not want the BBC wrecking their plans. On the other hand, they may be happy for a publicly funded organization to be the guinea pig and take the risks they are reluctant to take at this stage of the digital evolution.