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A Month on the BBC Global iPlayer

The kind folks over at the BBC were nice enough to give me access to the iPlayer for a month in order to review it. So I’ve spent to past month watching various BBC productions on my iPhone in a variety of circumstances. I’ve streamed them at home, I’ve downloaded and watched them on the bus; I’ve used the iPhone’s speakers and I’ve listened with my headphones; I’ve tried old and new and various types of programmes and shows. I have to admit to being quite impressed with the product, even if I do have some slight reservations.

Technically, the service is nothing short of impressive. The navigation is easy, there’s a minimum amount of fuss in configuring the settings. The home screen provides quick links to new shows and the user’s downloads, and each and every entry comes with a handy list of recommendations – just in case you are looking for something similar to watch. The programming is indexed by show and also by actor.

I would note that the actor listings are quite strange. Although there’s only one show available featuring Matt Smith (and it’s not the one you’d think), he gets his own actor listing. In contrast, I encountered veteran thespian Robert Lindsay several times, but couldn’t find a readily-indexed selection of his work. Perhaps the two databases could also be cross-referenced in some way and expanded to include writers and directors too, so that if I like Friends & Crocodiles, I’d have the option to view a portfolio of either Stephen Poliakoff or Damian Lewis’ extensive work with the BBC. At the moment, I can search for Lewis separately, so it’s not that big a deal.

The actual use of the service is quite handy. If you have a good internet connection, you can stream from the catalogue live. I’ve done this quite a few times at home, and it’s nearly perfect. There were one or two hiccups (as you can imagine with three computers all sharing the same broadband connection), but I was always able to follow the show. However, the best feature of the device is the option to download programmes and effectively store them for later.

I commute for about two hours every day, so I have plenty of time to watch, but the wi-fi connection on public transport isn’t strong enough to support the streaming. Downloading the shows at home and watching them on the bus was actually perfectly suited to my life-style. It is really, really efficient. The whole user interface is significantly ahead of other streaming services available via the app store.

The picture quality is excellent, and I was always able to follow what was going on, even watching the programming on the relatively tiny screen of my iPhone. There’s also a rake of other handy features – including the option to resume a downloaded programmed from the place where you last watched it. It’s especially handy if your travelling doesn’t handily divide up into hour or half-hour sections. It’s all relatively easy and handy to use.

So the application is fluid and user-friendly, which is pretty essential for a device like this. However, if the service costs €6.99 a month, it’s not just the easy of use that people are going to be interested in. I’ve long maintained that the BBC is one of the best public service broadcasters in the world, and I say that knowing that my own domestic broadcasters can’t hold a candle to the creativeness or the vitality or the diversity or the intelligence of the bulk of the BBC’s output. I think it’s fair to measure the general quality of the BBC’s television output to that of HBO.

And, since I don’t pay my television license to the British government, it’s only fair that I should have to pay for to watch it in some other form. It’s worth noting that I think €6.99 would be more than a fair price to pay for complete access to the BBC’s library of broadcasting. It’s worth noting that it’s access to this back library that distinguishes the BBC Global iPlayer from other freely available downloadable broadcast apps like 4oD, which generally only streams shows 30 days after broadcast.

And, to be honest, there is a lot of great stuff available on here. You’ve probably noticed from the countless reviews I’ve been running throughout the month (full index below). There’s a healthy cross-section of the BBC available, both old and new. The BBC’s back catalogue is so large that it’s impossible for everything to be available, but they have made a point to include at least some classic programming like the early Doctor Who episodes with William Hartnell or Yes, Minister or even Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns.

That said, there are obvious gaps – there doesn’t appear to be a lot of Dennis Potter, for example, or any Monty Python or any of the classic Quatermass serials, including the two surviving sequels. However, I’m forgiving of these, if only because there is so much stuff that needs to be put up there, and one assumes the BBC will eventually produce a comprehensive back catalogue of its surviving work. I wouldn’t expect it all now, but I would hope that the back catalogue would eventually develop to a state near completion.

On the other hand, there are some omissions that are a lot less easy to excuse. For example, the celebrated Sherlock Holmes adaptation is not available to watch in Ireland. This is one of the BBC’s most celebrated adaptations in years, but it isn’t available to watch on a service that costs a fair amount to use. Similarly, despite having a cast listing for Matt Smith, which includes a picture from his Doctor Who tenure, not a single episode featuring the actor is available to stream. That means that the most recent episode that can be watched is approximately three years old.

Perhaps there are licensing issues at play here that keep the BBC from making these shows available for download, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are some of the best of the BBC, and they’d certainly be among the shows that I would be looking to watch. Indeed, some of the omissions seem quite strange. The first season of the superb Wallander is included, with three feature-length episodes. The third season is being broadcast later this year. Yet the second series is not available, which seems a bit strange – surely the iPlayer would allow me to catch up with the first two series before the latest one begins? I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is slightly frustrating.

So, there you have it. There is a lot of great stuff available on this app, which as also remarkably easy to use. However, I can’t honestly say that I’d be willing to spend the €6.99 per month for access to the programming currently available. I’d be willing to accept that not all classic programming would be ready to download immediately, but the restrictions on past episodes of series currently being broadcast are too severe for me to sign on to the programme. I’d be willing to accept a more compromised back catalogue at a lower price point, but the library available at the moment just doesn’t justify the cost.

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