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A Look at the BBC iPlayer

I don’t watch TV during the traditional evening slots anymore. Not sure when the shift happened. Third kid sure didn’t help. And now whenever I feel like relaxing in front of the tube on Sunday afternoon, I find a bunch of 7 to 10 year old boys swinging Wii controllers over Lego Star Wars. These days, I find solace in the privacy of “alternate screens.”

What has happened in the UK recently is, I think, pretty fascinating. The BBC has made available a tool called the iPlayer to their viewers. From a computer, or from a mobile device, users can now catch-up with any shows they missed in the last few days. I don’t think even the BBC expected such massive uptake, followed by an upheaval from the main ISPs and wireless operators due to the crushing bandwidth demands of consumers like me using the iPlayer?

Several ISPs, notably Tiscali, have called on the BBC to contribute to network upgrade funding to cope with iPlayer traffic. The last number I saw (more than 1 year ago) was 5% of UK internet traffic attributed to iPlayer! It’s probably even higher now.

You have to wonder: what happens when consumers move to the web and their mobile devices en masse to watch TV? The answer is simple. The networks break down. In the UK, ISPs like BT are throttling the iPlayer during peak time as a coping measure. Not a good way to befriend your customers.

People tend to assume that the value of broadcast goes down with time-shifting, and that broadcast is “just for live TV.” But broadcast is also about how the content can be delivered, not when it’s consumed. Broadcast can get you the latest episode of your favorite show the day after it airs, delivered and stored as clip on your mobile device, ready to be played.

Time-shifted content consumption follows a pretty traditional consumption curve: a large number of people watch a fairly small number of shows. That makes the economics of broadcast delivery pretty compelling. Live TV will continue to play a huge role in our life. But for those shows I don’t have to watch live, pre-delivering them over broadcast to my mobile device creates a compelling use case. I can watch it whenever I want, and there is no marginal delivery cost to the network operator.

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