Finally, on Monday 30th April 2007, the BBC Trust have approved the BBC iPlayer and associated internet services.
An unprecedented 10,608 people responded to the new BBC Trust's consultation, 1,379 not from the UK. The "final conclusions" document published today demonstrates the new Trust's constitutional position of representing licence fee payers, existing media markets and the interests of the BBC's suppliers, commercial realities and bears in mind the BBC commercial activities.
The Trust has carefully considered many viewpoints on the main areas of contention: the use of Digital Rights Management , platform neutrality and series stacking.
What is the iPlayer
There is a "degree of confusion" about the iPlayer: "as we tried to explain the provisional conclusions" says the BBC Trust!
The BBC iPlayer is identical to Channel 4's 4OD service, but with BBC programmes and without the charges. It comprises of a peer-to-peer file sharing service bolted onto Windows Media Player. Using a simple interface the user can select programmes to download. When they have transferred to your computer they can be watched for a restricted period of time after which Auntie's software will delete these downloads automatically.
Seven day catch-up over the internet (iPlayer), seven day catch-up on digital cable and simulcast over the internet:
BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, Five Live, 1Xtra, Five Live Sports Extra, 6 Music, 7, Asian Network, Scotland, nan Gaidheal, Wales, Cymru, Ulster/Foyle, English Local Radio
The BBC and Digital Rights Management
Digital Rights Management is a system that creates an artificial barrier to your computer decoding a file if the approval cannot be obtained by the player (Windows Media Player, in this case) the file is useless.
In an echo of the process that deleted much of the BBC's stored output from the 1960s and 1970s (Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who, for example) the BBC will install software onto your computer that will erase the 'recordings' you have made, and restrict what you can do with content on your own computer.
Not surprisingly "a large number of responses" objected to the BBC using DRM, and naturally none of these came from "industry stakeholders".
The BBC state "Typically, respondents argued that licence payers because they have already paid for BBC content in some way "own" it and therefore should have unrestricted access to it, including the right to copy and modify it". Right which, of course, they do possess if they record it from analogue, Freeview, digital satellite or cable TV!
However, the BBC Trust considers the needs of the industry above the wishes of the licence fee payer and considers DRM essential for the iPlayer and associated services. Without DRM, Platform neutrality is not an issue and there would be no series stacking issues.
First there is some excellent news! The BBC Trust has restated one of the longest principles of the BBC (as old as 'inform, educate, entertain'):
"The BBC Trust is fully committed to the principle of platform neutrality in the provision of BBC services"
The seven-day television catch-up service was stated to use "Windows XP (or above) and Windows Media Player 10 (or above)", but 81% of respondents said it was very important (plus 5% just 'important') that users of non-Microsoft software should not be excluded from the iPlayer service, so:
"The BBC Trust would like to invite providers of other commercial solutions which may meet the BBC requirement of a time-based approach to DRM to contact the BBC Executive".
However, the lack of a practical solution has stopped the BBC Trust demanding support for Apple and UNIX within a timeframe, fudging the issue to "auditing the process every six months".
Series stacking is a problem that arises because of DRM, as above. The time between the first episode being put online and it being removed will usually be a week, but sometime longer for "landmark series".
84% of people said they wanted the kind flexibility that the internet experience offers. Consequentially around 15% of the iPlayer's content will have series stacking where all episodes of a series can be downloaded whilst the subsequent episodes are broadcast.
The storage window
Down from three months to 30 days, the time limit between the file being downloaded and being watch, was approved by 39% (37% wanted no limitation).
When the storage window was restricted to a week, it was not possible to use the service to watch a series from the beginning or catch up on programmes when away (say on holiday) for a fortnight.
So you will be able to keep content for 30 days before you watch it.
Classical music and book readings
In a somewhat short-sited decision, the BBC considered that Classical Music should not be podcast because non-DRM audio recordings of BBC Radio 3 broadcasts would stop people buying classical music CDs!
Aside from the fact that people simply are NOT buying CDs of any kind, I would have though a cultural organization like the BBC would wish to promote Classical Music, rather then hide it!
The same argument was made book readings, as these are also sold on CD, even though 85% of people would use them.
Protection of Children
Some (27%) though the BBC should implement a child-protection system, but half regard the issue as being a parental responsibility, so the BBC will leave it to parents.
Third-party content on the BBC iPlayer
A quarter of respondents thought it was a good idea to include non-BBC content, a slightly smaller proportion think it is a bad idea, so the BBC considers it "no appropriate at this stage" to include other broadcasters content.
The whole BBC iPlayer system will be reviewed after 24 months from the non-service's launch November 2007.
A selection of programmes from the BBC Nations and regions will be included, initially non-news, but with news content coming later.
The iPlayer interface should also be usable in Welsh.