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BBC Quietly Leading the Net TV Revolution


The BBC's iPlayer Web TV portal is hugely popular in Britain but can't be viewed overseas. No matter: With today's revamp, and planned updates, it looks like the BBC is setting a high bar for competition in the coming Net TV revolution.

The iPlayer launched in late 2007 as a way for U.K. TV viewers to catch up with programs from Aunty Beeb that they'd missed and to view legacy footage. It was technologically clever—always seeming to stay pretty much ahead of the pirates—even while its interface was pretty simple. It's also hugely popular, as over 1.1 billion minutes of footage are served up over the system every month. Today it's getting its first big revamp, and the BBC has listened to the needs of its users as well as paying attention to current memes for the redesign. 

The watchwords for the new site are convenience and personalization. Hence, the BBC has arranged the user landing page for so that it's easier to find TV shows one wants to see. The player module can now be launched in a stand-alone window, meaning you can continue to watch a show while you do other things on the site, or elsewhere on the Web, much more easily. It's also a neat way to power your TV directly with iPlayer content, if you're one of those connected souls who's TV is hooked up as a second monitor for your PC. Meanwhile, integrating the iPlayer profile with Facebook and Twitter accounts is now simpler, to facilitate sharing info about your shows with your friends or followers.

But this social net interactivity isn't fast enough for the BBC, so soon the network will be building in Windows Messenger powers to the system, enabling real-time chats during program viewings. The Beeb is obviously envisaging TV show catch-up parties, with excited folks IM-nattering about this week's goings-on by Doctor Who or whatnot ... though the jury is still out over whether this is actually a good idea (check out Fox's disastrous attempts at the same thing). In a move something akin to Facebook's "like" button or Amazon's "wish lists," you can also now build lists of your favorite shows to share with people.

The revamped system is also cleverly rigged up so you can download TV show content before it's had its first terrestrial broadcast, and although you can't watch it during this period, it means you can do so instantly upon its TV airing. In some sense, this is the BBC enabling a Tivo-like "live TV pause" power into its service. 

Recently there were a number of rumors that suggested the BBC would be bringing the iPlayer to international audiences for the first time in 2011. We've heard these rumors before, but this time they have a ring of authority. Earlier moves seem to have been squashed due to the BBC's complicated status as a quasi-public owned entity, but this time many of these objections appear to have fallen away as it's now plausible for the Beeb to easily charge overseas viewers to see the content. 

And when this happens, the venerable BBC may suddenly burst onto the Web TV stage as a serious player. Its shows are widely syndicated around the world, and highly regarded in terms of quality of both content and production, and combined with a globally-accessible Web portal the BBC's reach would be even greater. Though obviously only BBC-sourced content would be viewable, it will find itself in competition with other Web-TV services, which in some ways it's already technically superseded—having had many years to perfect its back-end technology with all those billions of successful minutes of streamed TV. With a social net angle added in, its even incorporating the latest (and in some senses upcoming) trends for social media and real-time TV show interactivity.

There's only one question: When the BBC's global iPlayer arrives, will the Beeb make its code compatible with other people's set-top boxes—are we going to see it inside Google TV or a dedicated App on Apple's new TV set-top box?

To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.