The BBC's iPlayer Goes to Parliament
~by Sean Daly
Broadcasting Corporation officially launched its ambitious iPlayer client, a
video-on-demand "catch-up" service limited to UK residents, on Christmas
Day with a massive promotional push which resulted in
a million viewers watching over 3.5 million viewed programs. Launch TV advertising notwithstanding,
this is unquestionably a sign that the era of "time-shifted on-demand"
video over the Internet has arrived.
celebrations however, Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, faced stiff
questioning last week before the UK Parliament House of Commons Public Accounts
Select Committee which wanted to know more about the Beeb's efforts
to cut spending and in particular the costs of the massive iPlayer
project. The hearing followed the publication of a National Audit
Office report [PDF] on BBC Procurement.
Information about the meeting can be found here.
There is a video of the 92-minute hearing available for
viewing for a limited time, but unfortunately, it is in Microsoft
Windows Media format and is not seekable, meaning it is not possible to
fast-forward or rewind. The UK parliament website suggests that
everyone use Windows, which is ironic since it is precisely this kind of
proprietary-standard approach which has dogged the iPlayer project these
past three years and drawn the ire of the UK's Open
Rights Group and the Open
We have written to Parliament's audiovisual
department seeking permission to present the film here in Ogg Theora
format, but there is a complex and expensive licensing scheme to deal
with which is clearly meant for broadcasters. We hope to have the video
or audio in an open format at a later date.
The HoC Public Accounts Committee has just published a transcript of the hearing and it is fascinating
reading for those unable to view the video. It is important to note
however that although official, this is the "uncorrected" transcript,
meaning that neither the BBC witnesses nor the MP committee members have
had the opportunity to correct the record; the transcript in this form
is not yet the approved formal record of the proceedings which may take
weeks to prepare.
I'd like to draw your attention to a series of questions asked by Member
of Parliament Dr. John Pugh.
Dr. Pugh is clearly aware of the iPlayer's shortcomings and asks about
the project's total cost. You may remember we asked this same question during
interview last November with Ashley Highfield, the BBC's Future
Media and Technology Director, who told us then that the iPlayer client development
cost was £4.5 million. At this hearing, Ms. Zarin Patel, BBC Group
Finance Director, testifies that she does not have the precise figures to
hand but estimates the cost at £20 million. Mark Thompson
adds that this figure includes salaries and not only procurement items.
As the BBC witnesses are unable to respond to the question in detail,
Dr. Pugh asks that correct figures be forwarded to the Committee. And later, as I'll show you, the figure was corrected downward. Please note that Zarin does make it clear at the HoC meeting that she didn't have the exact
figures to hand.
also worried that the BBC's initial Microsoft-only policy constitutes
illegal state aid, a situation which could subject the UK Government to
an investigation and sanctions from the EU. He was concerned enough to
write to the BBC's Director-General the day after the hearing. We have
obtained the letter [PDF] which we present as text below, along with the portion of the HoC
PAC questions relative to iPlayer.
We asked the BBC for clarification concerning the cost discrepancy. In a statement, the BBC said:
The figures for the total estimated spend on the BBC's on-demand proposals are as follows:
- £131 million was the forecast for the total cost to the BBC for its on-demand proposal over a five year period (start 2006/07). This includes rights costs and other operational and technical costs.
- The £4.5 million discussed in November was the total spend at the time for the development of BBC iPlayer.
- However, this figure now stands at £5.7 million. The increase is due to current year spend now being included in the figure.
The "viewer-facing" iPlayer is, in fact, the visible part of a major internal project to transition from tape-based video archives to digital. Some information about this huge project can be found
and here. Mr. Highfield referred to this project in our interview
and you will see that Mr. Thompson does, as well, in his testimony below.
The initial Windows-only architecture of the iPlayer, and the only
version to actually offer download "catch-up" viewing today, runs
exclusively under Windows XP and Vista (previous versions are not
with Microsoft DRM and Verisign Kontiki centrally controlled
P2P which requires [EULA]
iPlayer users to donate their bandwidth. The BBC says that DRM is necessary
to protect content rightsholders, in particular "indie" production companies.
What content companies invariably seem to underestimate is the fear and loathing
most people feel toward DRM and their willingness to avoid it whenever
possible; the record companies took years to figure this out.
The streaming iPlayer
version, built around Adobe Flash, has according to the BBC been
preferred by users by a factor of 8 to 1. Could it be users don't want to
install software they can't turn off which monopolizes their bandwidth
and phones home to Microsoft?
Why hasn't the BBC built upon
its own GPL'd, patent-unencumbered, scalable audiovisual codec,
Dirac, a codec which has come far since its beginnings in 2004?
Mr. Highfield has just indicated that the iTunes platform could be acceptable
to rightsholders with the new "time-bomb" extension of Apple's FairPlay DRM.
Erik Huggers, the former Microsoft executive referred to in the testimony
(and who has said "my loyalties are to the BBC and the BBC alone"), has just hired Dirk-Willem van Gulik, former President of
the Apache Software Foundation, which is good news for him but unlikely to be
welcomed by any of the BBC's 1800 "compulsory redundancies" worried about their jobs.
Has the time has come to ditch the
Windows/Kontiki iPlayer client, and the millions of pounds of
development and Microsoft and Verisign software licenses that went into it, or at the very least communicate more openly the costs associated with
a project in which Microsoft has pride of place to the detriment of license
fee payers having chosen other systems? Curiously, I could find no
report of the committee meeting on any of the BBC websites,
with the single exception of this blog post which appeared following our questions.
Here's the transcript, followed by the Dr. Pugh letter:
Dr Pugh: As I understand this Report, you have met your
£75 million target for this year but your annual expenditure
is actually up and the explanation of that is because of one-off
expenditure of one kind or another such as development and some
expenditure on property and workplace. Is that correct?
Mr Peat: The savings that are set out here are those audited
by the NAO.
Dr Pugh: The savings are real but there are additional
items which you would not buy every year, as it were.
Mr Peat: Correct.
Dr Pugh: And clearly one of those you have just mentioned
is the iPlayer. How much has that cost to develop, bearing in mind that
not all the costs may be in one year?
Mr Peat: I would prefer that Zarin gave that information.
Dr Pugh: How much has it cost to develop the iPlayer?
Ms Patel: I do not have the figures to hand. I believe that
it was somewhere in the region of £20 million all told over
the last two or three years but I do not have that exact information to
Dr Pugh: Could you send us the figure?
Ms Patel: Yes, of course.
Dr Pugh: How long has it taken to develop in all?
Mr Thompson: You will understand of course that only the
sub-set of that cost comes under the category of procurement. For
example, staff costs of BBC staff would not be included in the category
Dr Pugh: So the iPlayer costs may actually be
considerably more than that and some of it will be procurement?
Mr Thompson: I think the figure quoted is the total cost of
which only a proportion will be procurement.
Dr Pugh: What was the cost of making the iPlayer
partially interoperable, because that was an additional cost incurred
during this year was it not? Initially it was only working on Windows
XP via Internet Explorer. I believe, I have not tried, I can now get it
to work on my Mac; for some things anyway. I can stream but I cannot
Mr Thompson: It should be working on your Mac. If it is not,
I will pop round and have a look.
Dr Pugh: Interestingly enough, I did try on the House of
Commons Windows computer and it crashed. But that is possibly a separate
Mr Thompson: It may be a problem at your end. Who knows? The
plan with the iPlayer was always to make it as widely available across
different platforms as we could and the main consumer launch of the
iPlayer, which happened on Christmas Day, when we actually launched it
to the public fully ---
Dr Pugh: So it was planned expenditure; nothing to do
with the protests which were voiced at the time.
Mr Thompson: No. To be honest people feared that the BBC
might be planning a cosy and exclusive relationship with Microsoft. It
was always planned; it was a requirement of the BBC Trust but, to be
honest, it was always the management's plan that this product would be
available for people using different systems.
Dr Pugh: It had nothing to do with the fact that your
group controller of future media technology actually came from Microsoft
and was hired from Microsoft.
Mr Peat: It was a condition of approval by the BBC Trust that
the full availability through different systems should be
Mr Thompson: What was true was that some of the initial
consumer tests were available only for use in the Microsoft Windows and
Media Player environment, but that was at the testing stage. It is
absolutely core to the BBC that we make our services as universally
available as possible and that, in the context of the web, absolutely
includes the availability of services on different platforms.
Dr Pugh: So at what stage will we be able to fully
download and screen to a Mac or a Linux computer?
Mr Thompson: You can do that now.
Dr Pugh: Both of them?
Mr Thompson: Yes.
Dr Pugh: Why, in a sense, did you develop your own piece
of kit? There are actually things you could have procured. BT Vision
is one product, BitTorrent is another which are both developed and fully
interoperable as far as I understand. Why go to all the trouble of
procuring your own system which in a sense you could have bought off the
Mr Thompson: The iPlayer, the application of the iPlayer, the
client application and the way programming media files are both encoded
and transported from server to client, is not a bespoke BBC creation.
Dr Pugh: Some applications elsewhere are actually better,
are they not?
Mr Thompson: It is an assembly of existing pieces of
technology. We package some different pieces of technology, but it is
not as though we have gone out and invented our own peer-to-peer or
digital rights management systems; these have been packaged up. A
significant part of the cost of the iPlayer is to do something rather
different which is that the nature of this application and, if you like,
the promise of the application is that people will be able to catch up
Dr Pugh: I know that.
Mr Thompson: There is a substantive point coming.
Re-engineering the BBC itself, such that automatically we can get
hundreds and hundreds of hours of television and indeed alongside our
existing radio on-demand services, encoded, available to be downloaded
with all their rights cleared and all the rest of it, has meant getting
dozens of different existing systems to talk to each other. So a
significant part of the development challenge and of the cost of iPlayer
has been around organising an end-to-end digital delivery of the content
to iPlayer. Nobody anywhere in the world has tried to offer so much
content so quickly in real time to the public. What is unusual about the
iPlayer is not the functionality of being able to download programmes;
it is about the sheer quantity and the fact that it refreshes every day.
It has been the back office side of the content delivery which has been
a large part of both the technological challenge and also a significant
part of the cost.
Dr Pugh: But can you not understand the view that you
spent clearly much more than £20 million on developing this
piece of apparatus and its application which when it downloads the
marvellous content of the BBC cannot even tell me how much I have
downloaded in terms of megabytes and so on, can it?
Mr Thompson: We have decided to keep the user interface.
Dr Pugh: BitTorrent can tell me how much I have
downloaded: the BBC cannot tell me.
Mr Thompson: We have chosen to offer a user interface which
is very simple, very clear and which, if I may put it the other way, is
not going to put off people because it offers vast amounts of complex
information about megabytage and screening rates and all the rest of it.
If you go on to the iPlayer right now, in two or three clicks you can be
watching Sense and Sensibility. What we are seeing is that about
a million people have already tried iPlayer. It has only been launched
since Christmas Day and the stream is full.
Dr Pugh: In two or three clicks I could be exceeding the
limit on my broadband connection and I would not know. In a sense you
have developed an application which is of limited use to the consumer
and spent an appreciable amount of money on it.
Mr Thompson: I am not going to suggest that we are not going
to continue to develop the iPlayer and to listen to our audiences about
ways in which we can improve it. Clearly it will not be difficult for
us, if it is not already there, to include in the interface information
about the use of bandwidth and streaming rates and so forth for those
who want it. In the first week the iPlayer's day-to-day growth was
around 20% per day. To be honest, all of the evidence we have had and
the feedback we have had is that consumers are enormously enjoying using
the iPlayer; around one million people in this country have tried it
already and we are a fortnight into its launch. It is growing very
strongly. It is very simple and easy to use and, I have to say, so far
it has got off to a very good start.
Dr Pugh: Moving on to that heading of People and
Resources, it also includes recruitment agencies. Presumably with a
large number of people currently being laid off by the BBC, your
expenditure on recruitment agencies is scheduled to dive, is it not,
because you are not doing much recruiting, in fact quite the reverse at
Mr Thompson: The total number of people working for the BBC
is reducing. The total pay bill of the BBC, staff, freelance, casual,
temporary, is also reducing and will continue to reduce. However,
clearly and iPlayer will be an example, some of the big other technology
projects we have, some of the other major one-off projects we have
sometimes require specialist skills and specialist resource which we
need on a temporary basis and that will continue.
Dr Pugh: Are you telling us it may not fall because you
may need expensive headhunters to find the right people to develop
applications like iPlayer?
Mr Thompson: As I tried to explain to you about iPlayer,
iPlayer is a bringing together of many existing applications which are
being developed by third parties and where the BBC pays a modest
licence: the Kontiki DRM peer-to-peer technology, the Adobe Flash video
streaming technology and so forth. I do not accept the premise that the
BBC, as it were, has been creating entirely new applications on its own.
What we have been doing is bringing technologies together to produce
what we do think is needed.
Dr Pugh: With all due respect, you are answering the
previous question. Recruitment agency funding is not likely to fall
then despite the position the BBC is in?
Ms Patel: In 2007-08 we are now back down to our normal
levels with £35 million spend projected for this year, which is
in line with an historical level. So the hump of spend we saw, the kind
of spike of spend that we saw both on our change projects, on iPlayer
and other technology projects, has now come back down to normal
January 10, 2008
Following our discussion at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday,
I thought it might be useful to underline the main point I wished to
It can be argued that iPlayer has not been the best piece of
procurement done by the BBC that it lacks such obvious features as
indicators of download file size -- useful to the consumer on limited
broadband -- or true high quality encoding differentiating it from other
currently available, off the peg applications.
I do recognise that that it has an attractive interface, is user
friendly and addresses digital rights issues so I stop short of
suggesting the BBC has bought a lemon.
The more fundamental issue is its failure to apply open standards and
be sufficiently interoperable to work fully (streaming and download) on
more than one platform. The BBC is funded by licence players not all of
whom have or chose to use a computer running Windows XP or Vista. By
guaranteeing full functionality to the products of one software vendor
it is as a public body handing a commercial advantage to that company --
effectively illegal state aid!
The aspiration to eventually (you said within two years) remove this
advantage does not rebut this charge. A promise of amendment is never
sufficient excuse for past sins or indeed much of an explanation.
Most major web based developments of any scale these days work on the
presumption that interoperablity, open standards and platform neutrality
are givens. It is not clear why the BBC design brief did not specify
these requirements or if it did what technical problems -- given the
expertise available -- hinder them being implemented.
So long as the iPlayer is bundled in with Windows/Internet Explorer
it continues to run the risk of breaching state aid rules -- as the
benefits it thereby bestows on Microsoft (with their somewhat blemished
reputation for fair competition) come via the deployment of the public's
licence money. What might be a pragmatic choice for a privately funded
company becomes deeply problematic for a public corporation.
I recognise and welcome the assurances that the BBC and you
personally have given on this subject but wonder whether the sheer
novelty of the new media has blinded many to the clear commercial
inequity in the delivery of it.