BBC iPlayer – Live Streaming

In the week Macworld turned its gaze to the recently launched Channel 4 online 4oD Catch-Up service, now for the most part Mac and Linux compatible, we thought we'd turn our attention to the live streaming service offered by the BBC. The BBC iPlayer has been a phenomenal hit, a chance, in the UK at least, to catch up with a host of TV and radio shows from the full range of BBC channels, all on-demand at a time to suit even the most busy of lifestyles.

A Mac and Linux friendly BBC iPlayer Desktop appeared, as promised by the BBC, just before 2008 was out the door, with the ability to download some, but not all, iPlayer content for watching offline. Available from the BBC iPlayer Labs and still in beta, Mac users reviews have been mixed at best. You can send the BBC user feedback and while you won't get a personal reply they promise comments will help shape the future of the online player and download service.

In November 2008, the BBC added live streaming of BBC One and BBC Two to its iPlayer, which was already broadcasting live content from BBC Three, BBC Four, CBBC, CBeebies and BBC News. Click on 'TV Channels' and 'On Now' and where possible you watch live, or near as live, streaming. BBC Parliament is also available to watch online.

This is where live streaming becomes a hit and miss experience. The BBC can only stream content they have the rights to broadcast online. Live sporting events, US comedies and dramas, and feature films often appear with the message: "Sorry we can't show you this particular programme for legal reasons, however this programme is available on your TV."

You'll get an idea which programming isn't coming up any time soon as the 'Next' button reveals the title and duration and when relevant: "Not available online." Substantial chunks of BBC One and BBC Two viewing can be missing, especially later at night. BBC Two, for instance, are currently showing the highly regarded US drama The Wire, but not online. Oddly, live golf, the Masters from Augusta National Golf Club, was available online while last year's Bowls: International Open live from Burgess Hill, Sussex wasn't. A second message: "This content doesn't seem to be working. Try again later," can also disrupt your viewing pleasure, although refreshing your browser can often resolve this.

Not all BBC programming is available online to watch live via iPlayer.

Picture quality is watchable, fine compared to say the majority of YouTube content, especially when viewed at standard size or in a pop-out player. On a 24" monitor the full-screen option was soft and pixelated but from a distance acceptable. For simulcasting the BBC Web site has this to say: "Consistent with all our streamed services on the BBC, this runs at a video bitrate of 384kbps and an audio bitrate of 128kbps stereo, and the Codec On2 VP6. There will be a move to the newer and better open standard H.264 in due course."

While the BBC point out you do not need a television licence to catch-up on television programmes using BBC iPlayer, you will do when you watch or record at the same time - or virtually the same time - as it is being broadcast on television. For ex-pats and those abroad sadly iPlayer is only available to users with a IP address located within the UK, although the majority of radio programming – with the exception of Premiership football matches, local radio football commentary and Formula One Grand Prix – is available to listen online worldwide.

OUR VERDICT

While the BBC iPlayer is leading the way for online catch-up TV and radio content, actual live streaming can be a disappointment as rights issues limit what's available. Unless the BBC, and other broadcasters who see the potential of simulcasting online, resolve this problem, online viewers will be denied the enjoyment of seeing the full picture.

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