updated 11:40 pm EDT, Wed July 27, 2011
US, Canada, Australia get it later this year
The BBC is rolling out the long-awaited global iPlayer service in stages, starting with availability in 11 countries in western Europe today and coming to Canada, the U.S. and Australia later this year in a one-year pilot experiment, says the UK's Guardian newspaper. The iPlayer online service, which allows UK residents to stream BBC television programs, has proven enormously popular in recent times, rivalling the rise of Hulu or Netflix in the United States.
The service will offer a limited amount of content for free using advertising and sponsorships to offset the cost, but will also offer a subscription model of seven Euros per month ($10) per month or €50 ($72) per year, which entitles the subscriber to access all BBC content on demand. The global version of the app, available exclusively for the iPad for now, is debuting today in Austrai, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Ireland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
The iPlayer service can be used outside the UK for BBC Radio, but until now video content was restricted to only promotional announcements rather than actual programs. The BBC is funded primarily through mandatory television and radio licenses, which meant its content was restricted to UK IP addresses only.
Unlike the UK version, the global iPlayer app will also stream shows over 3G as well as Wi-Fi, and can download and store programs on the iPad for later viewing. The content available will focus mainly on new programs over the last month, but with selected offerings stretching all the way back to the black-and-white era (pre-1970) and early programs going back to the 1950s.
Users can search for specific show titles or browse genres, with curated content chosen by BBC editors. There will also be themed collections, such as episodes of Doctor Who grouped by individual Doctors or his arch-enemy, the Daleks.
The app is launching with over 1,500 hours of available content, which is expected to grow by over 100 hours per month. Initially the app will offer the same home screen to all countries, but over time will selectively highlight different content based on local demand.
Although the BBC did not explicitly mention Airplay support in its announcement, it did say the broadcaster was "working closely with Apple on the offline feature," citing the example of allowing the app to optionally override the normal sleep, so as to set a list of shows to be downloaded onto the device overnight (while plugged in, of course) and be ready for offline viewing before a trip. Airplay support would not only guarantee wide popularity as a Netflix alternative, but likely spur sales of Apple's own AppleTV.
The company doesn't believe it is in direct competition with services such as Netflix or Hulu, preferring instead to use its "handcrafted" editorial curation of content to create "a tone of voice" that differentiates the service from those in other countries -- though a spokesman hinted that pricing in the U.S. when it arrives will be influenced by Netflix's $8 per month service. While iPad-only for the time being, BBC Worldwide -- the commercial arm of the BBC -- hopes the global iPlayer idea will foster multi-device and multi-platform versions after the pilot period.
Unusually for the BBC, about 10 percent of the content on the iPlayer will come from rival networks such as ITV and Channel 4, offering shows such as Primeval and The Naked Chef. The company says it wants the app to serve as a "visual window" on the whole "cultural and entertainment space in Britain," which includes sources beyond just the BBC. Most shows should be available very shortly after first broadcast, and will generally be available indefinitely, though a few top "marquee" shows (such as Doctor Who and Top Gear) will be more limited due to an interest in promoting DVD sales.
The eventual launch of the North American access to the global iPlayer later this year will not affect the BBC's existing arrangements with iTunes, Netflix or any other of its distribution partners, a company spokesman said. [via The Guardian]