Interview: BBC iPlayer Boss Says All Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

The BBC brought its iPlayer seven-day catch-up, one of the world’s most popular VOD products, to iPad and Android as apps this week – to a mostly warm response and some impatient grumbles that shows can’t be stored on the devices or streamed over 3G (it’s WiFi streams only).

The absences are a consequence of mobile networks’ limitations and of a development process that must be iterative as iPlayer’s popularity challenges its resources, BBC on-demand general manager Daniel Danker tells paidContent:UK…

Why WiFi-only?

“Consumers have certain quality expectations of long-form content – for us to deliver the right experience requires us to deliver a high-quality stream. There’s also an aspect of billshock – it’s incredibly costly. People are going to exceed their limits pretty quickly.

“Traditionally, people thought out-of-the-home equals cellular. But that’s decreasing, we’re seeing a really good expansion of WiFi deployment out of home – now, there aren’t many places you find yourself without WiFi.

“Our intention is to make this available to as many places as possible, including 3G.”

Why no download?

The original, Windows-only iPlayer was a download-only system. Now, web-based Flash streaming is most popular, but some viewers still download on desktop using an Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) AIR application – a function the iPad and Android apps so far lack.

“Without a doubt, this has climbed to virtually the top of our list for the product,” Danker says.

“The audience reaction has been interesting – on the one hand, we’re being asked to make it available ever when you’re connected and, on other hand, everywhere when disconnected. It’s about, how do we prioritise our next steps on engineering?”

Why some missing content?

The iPad and Android versions of iPlayer, like their Big Screen counterpart are missing some shows from the BBC’s large repertoire, notably some from the nations and regions. The reason – Danker has to encode in nearly two dozen different formats for a proliferating number of devices on which the iPlayer product is becoming available.

“It comes down to encoding and storage capacity,” he says. “We end up having to take the content in and take 20 different encodes of every single piece of content. You have to make a decision about how much storage you can build up, and how much encoding. You get certain streams where you did’t generate for all 20 platforms.”

Innovating and iterating

This week’s few consumer gripes about the iPad and Android gaps were characterised as a “firestorm” and a “backlash” – but they clearly overlook the step-by-step nature in which iPlayer, and most technology services, tend to get built.

iPlayer has popularised time-shifted UK TV viewing in the UK, inspired commercial broadcasters’ similar platforms and itself hit a record 120 million monthly requests in January, available on a growing number of devices.

“The goal was to get the basics out there, without forming too many assumptions about what the right next things are”, rather than “making the decision to wait and get in every last thing.”

“It’s important we get the right feedback. It’s dangerous to make all the assumptions first and you come out there and maybe you didn’t get it exactly right.

“I was up all night the night that we launched that, watching user feedback – people were clamouring for this – it skyrocketed to number-one in the App Store within hours.

“The key there is quality. You can launch something half-baked and get terrible reaction.”

Next for iPlayer

Last May, the BBC told commercial UK broadcasters, each with their own iPlayer equivalent, that it could share in iPlayer’s halo – whilst it wouldn’t host their catch-up shows, it could ingest their VOD schedules and link out from iPlayer to their own video. So far, only S4C is on-record as accepting the olive branch.

“The key with this many partners is, it’s really difficult to get a consistent quality bar all at once,” Danker says. “It’s (coming) sooner rather than later.”

Hosting five broadcasters’ listings on iPlayer, whilst preserving the user experience the BBC-only iPlayer has built up, sounds like a headache. For example, should the BBC’s iPlayer iPad app list shows from ITV (LSE: ITV) Player, when the user experience would require linking from the app to’s website?

“An experience that’s great for one device isn’t necessarily great for another device,” Danker adds. “A great PC experience may not be the same on mobile. We’re not trying to create a product and squeeze it in to every screen.

For sake of consistency and to keep down development costs, the BBC has chosen HTML and Flash Big Screen implementations for the coming wave of connected TVs – the result is a self-contained iPlayer experience, rather than one integrated with those TV’s EPGs.

YouView boxes will get the Flash version, but the roll-out won’t end there. “That would be a mistake,” Danker says. “It’s one method of discovery, but it’s not the only one –
it means offering applications and then offering the metadata.” In other words, by pumping VOD descriptions in to the box, the YouView EPG could link directly to show pages inside the iPlayer Flash app.

Though iPlayer’s Big Screen implementation is on Playstation 3 and Wii, it’s not on Xbox, which doesn’t support either the Flash or HTML versions. “We’re talking to folks at Xbox about that,” Danker says. “Xbox is not an open platform today, so there isn’t a way for service providers like the BBC to build a product we can deply to Xbox.

“It’s all about getting to audiences of scale.”