Imagine if the BBC had stopped VHS

Recently I obtained from a FoI request to the BBC, a document entitled “Content Protection Update”. This document details issues that were put to BBC management regarding content protection, as well as minutes from an ERTG meeting. The document is about protecting BBC content, and preserving the BBCs’ ability to licence content from others. It contains this advice:

If we were to provide a version of iPlayer that was available to any device, then there would be nothing to stop an unapproved manufacturer creating a box that allowed these streams in perpetuity

Read that carefully. Given the heavy redactions, we unfortunately can not fully place that quote in its full context. However, I think we can glean that the BBC believes we should not be able to record its content. The BBC believes that it must have the power to control which devices may and which may not access BBC iPlayer. As I’ve argued before, such power to approve devices is anti-competitive and easily abused.

The current BBC management effectively believe the UK licence payer should not be able to do what it has been doing since the early 80s: to record TV for later viewing. The BBC would undo the effective rights the licence fee payer has had for 30 years, since the wide-spread availability of VHS. Without the ability to record TV arbitrarily, would people have invested in BBC-approved video tape technology? I would say not. In which case, the market in selling content to video-tape likely would never have happened. Would the BBC ever have developed its lucrative commercial market in selling its back-catalogue to VHS?

The immense irony here is that today’s BBC management, in acting to maintain tight control over content and hence over the devices that may play that content, are doing so in greater part to protect the £100m odd of profits generated by BBC Worldwide in 2009, £44m of which comes from DVD sales. A market which grew out of consumer technology developments, i.e. home video tape, that could only have been funded by the uncontrolled access to broadcast material.

Further, in acting to protect this £100m market, the BBC is making life difficult for the people who supply it with its £4.6bn of licence fee income. These people are not just those with such niche devices as Nokia or Android phones, who find they can not access BBC iPlayer. It is the entire fee-paying population which suffers, by being denied the wide range of innovative devices that might be available if it weren’t for the BBCs’ tight grip on which devices are and are not approved. Imagine we could have cheap PVRs for BBC, or digital TVs which transparently could show us shows either from over-the-air broadcast or from on-demand iPlayer. None of this exists widely, because it all requires the BBC to inspect and sign off on each and every device.

Indeed, worse, the BBC at present are proposing that they should be the ones who develop the devices too! So far as the future of TV is the internet, the BBC wishes to ensure that it has firm control over your TV!

In my opinion, the BBC should not be putting its interests in its commercial activities so far above the interests of the licence fee payer. Particularly not when the licence fee payer generates 400 times more revenue for the BBC. The BBC should not be acting as the gatekeeper to the TV market, broadcast or internet TV. I remain baffled as to why the BBC is acting in this way.

2 Comments »

  1. jrep said

    Apparently (http://woollydays.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/bbc-strategic-review-is-useful-template-for-the-abc/) the Australians haven’t heard about this, only the mission statement:

    The BBC mission is worth repeating because it has relevance also in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

  2. [...] per a previous blog post, it is a very unhealthy situation for the BBC to be able to pick & choose the [...]

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