diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 20, 2007

Making the unmissable unmissable

Where will you be watching telly on Christmas Day? On a television set, probably. But this Christmas there's going to be a brand new alternative - on your computer. The BBC has chosen 25th December to launch its iPlayer service, making the last 7 days of original BBC programming available to watch again online. If you have a UK broadband connection, this new broadcast opportunity might revolutionise your viewing.

Christmas Day is a strange date to launch a new online service. Will there be any BBC technicians around if things go wrong? And don't most people spend December 25th being sociable rather than hunched over a computer? But the launch date has been chosen, apparently, because there are so many great festive specials to watch at this time of year. Miss the Top of The Pops Christmas Special because you you were eating lunch? Watch it on your computer after the Queen's Speech. Sick of Strictly Come Dancing later in the evening? Click through and watch Oliver Twist instead. Miss the Doctor Who Kylie Special because granny wanted to watch Emmerdale? Sneak off and watch it on your laptop later after she's fallen asleep. And yes, you could do all of that already using a videotape or DVD recorder. But with the new service you can watch anything, even programmes you hadn't realised were on and therefore didn't think to record in advance. Trust me, it's a winner.

iPlayer has been running in beta since the summer, and I've been fortunate enough to be signed up as one of the triallists. Until very recently this beta trial has been download only, and Windows only, and Internet Explorer only, and really rather slow. Programmes sometimes took hours or days to be made available online, or maybe never even appeared at all. And each programme had to be downloaded from the website before you could watch it, which often took well over an hour and significantly slowed down my computer while it was arriving. No instant gratification there. What was fantastic was being able to watch each downloaded programme offline, at any time during the following month. But the hassle and delay involved in downloading everything meant that I lost interest in the service, and pretty much stopped using it.

Suddenly, iPlayer is different. Now there's a really simple streaming option, and I can be watching a new programme in less than a minute. Pick something fresh from the index (arranged by transmission date, initial letter or category), click on "Play" and off I go. Watch the programme in a small window, or expand it and watch a slightly pixellated version full screen. Good news - the streaming service isn't restricted to Windows or to Internet Explorer, so Mac and Linux users should now be rather happier. Viewers won't need to be logged in with a username any more either. But post-watershed programmes will bring up an advisory message (yes, I am over 16, honest) and parents can lock down dodgy programming with a password if they so choose.

Want to fast forward to the really good bit five minutes from the end of the program? No problem. Can't hear the soundtrack? Pump the volume up to 11. Want to start again when the videostream breaks down ("There seems to be a problem playing this video - please try again"). Sigh and refresh the page. Want to watch something from 7 days ago? Sorry, you only get the last 6 to choose from. Want to download the programme (with much higher video quality) to watch offline later? Well, you can still do that with some/most shows if you want. But I shall be streaming from now on, because I prefer the here and now.

With the Christmas launch of the iPlayer, the BBC enters YouTube territory. Watching videostreams online is where it's at, and the younger generation may now start viewing BBC programmes they'd normally have ignored. And look what this does to blogging. In the past I'd have had to write "Did you see Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe Xmas Special last night, it was great?" and you'd all sigh because you missed it. And now I can write "Did you see Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe Xmas Special last night, it was great?" and you can all click through and watch it for yourself. Well, if you've got nothing else to do at work this afternoon, why not? And if you've got nothing else to do on Christmas Day, maybe you could watch it again then too.

Update: Or, even better...

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