MP Questions BBC’s Microsoft ‘State Aid’; Beeb Plans Politics Site

Just when the BBC thought it had lanced the iPlayer platform neutrality boil, up steps a tech-savvy politician to pick away again. The House of Commons public accounts committee called Auntie’s BBC top dogs to a hearing last week. As The Reg notes, one member, Lib Dem MP John Pugh, was particularly vicious, writing to DG Mark Thompson later: “By guaranteeing full functionality to the products of one software vendor (Microsoft), it is as a public body handing a commercial advantage to that company – effectively illegal state aid! What might be a pragmatic choice for a privately funded company becomes deeply problematic for a public corporation.”

BBC finance director Zarin Patel told the committee iPlayer cost “somewhere in the region of £20 million, all-told, over the last two or three years”. Previous statements had suggested £4.5 million so this new figure presumably refers to all costs including salaries etc. You can watch the full, two-hour parliamentary grilling on the committee’s website – and note the video comes in Microsoft’s (NSDQ: MSFT) mostly platform-dependent WMV format.

The BBC this week claimed over 3.5 million shows had been watched over iPlayer within two weeks of its Christmas Day marketing beginning, with views of the web-based, platform-neutral streaming version outnumbering the download app eight to one. Ashley Highfield, who must be getting sick of this now that the streaming version is online, later lauded the figures on his blog. In an interview with paidContent:UK in September, he explained iPlayer launched on Windows first “because it reaches the largest amount of audience the quickest, because that’s our remit”.

Politics: Separately, Thomson (NYSE: TOC) said in a speech yesterday he would offer online political analysis to schoolchildren by creating “the worlds most creative multimedia portal which will offer comprehensive political coverage and analysis to every secondary school in the UK”. It’s part of a plan to transform the way the BBC connects with British democracy, covering topics like the EU, The Times reports (and here’s the release). It’s not clear if this will be a new website or an extension, or when it will launch.

Update (Jan 21, ’08): On the £20 million figure: BBC Internet Blog: “In fact I’ve been told that £5.7 million has been spent on iPlayer development to date (not including rights, operational and other technical costs). The BBC is forecasting £131 million as the total cost for its on-demand proposals (including the iPlayer) over five years (starting in 2006/07). This forecast includes rights costs and other operational and technical costs.”