Later this month, the BBC will launch a pilot project that could lead to all of its television programs being made available on the Internet.
The project, described in a report by the New Zealand Herald, will allow viewers to scan a guide on their computer screens and download any show they want to see. Programs will be viewable on a computer screen or could be burned onto a DVD to be watched through a television set. Alternatively, shows could be downloaded onto a personal digital assistant (PDA), a small hand-held computer.
The plan was conceived by Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media and technology, who discussed it with the Herald. “If we don’t enter this market, then exactly what happened to the music industry could happen to us, where we ignore it, keep our heads in the sand and everybody starts posting the content up there and ripping us off,” he said.
Highfield said the quality of the programs will be so high that the experience of watching a show on a PDA will be similar to that of viewing an in-flight film on an aircraft. The three-week pilot — called iMP (Internet Media Player) — will allow a selected group of 500 of the BBC’s staff to participate.
“The quality is staggeringly good,” Highfield said. “It’s slightly better than you get on the seat backs if you are in a plane, although PDAs have a slightly smaller screen. With your headphones on, it’s totally watchable.”
After the BBC pilot, an external trial will be launched with 1000 people picked from subscribers with broadband service providers AOL, BT and Tiscali. The trial will examine whether people watch more television with iMP and if they change viewing patterns.
“If the feedback is strongly positive, we will have to look at how we clear bulk content and how we start to roll this out widely,” Highfield said.
The plan is to make all BBC television programs from the previous week available on the Internet via a program guide similar to that already used by digital television viewers.
The iMP project is driven by research that shows that people increasingly find it difficult to align their free-time with fixed TV schedules, the Herald reported. Homes with personal video recorders (PVRs) such as Sky Plus already “time-shift” 70 percent of the programs they watch to more convenient viewing times.
“Amongst younger audiences, television is having to compete against other media as well, not just different channels but trying to get eyeballs away from PlayStations and the Internet,” said Highfield.