TV iPlayer Looks Like A Duck But Quacks Like A Cuckoo

Nigel Walley – March 2009

There is a rule in life that if something walks like a duck and talks like a duck it must be a duck.  It is a good rule, but we have been struggling this week with a slight variation to it.  How about if someone really big and important repeatedly tells you something is a duck, and has gone to the trouble of painting the thing to look like a duck, but every time you look at it,  it still doesn’t walk or talk like a duck?

The duck in question is the TV version of iPlayer that is available on Virgin cable.  The BBC and Virgin have made a great fuss over the fact that iPlayer is now available on Virgin’.  But however much we have tried, we can’t make it quack or waddle.

What is actually available on Virgin is an alternative menu structure to the main Virgin on-demand menus, painted to look like a duck, sorry, like iPlayer. These menus have been created using the red button software already present in the Virgin set top box.  Apart from the fact that these menu screens have been coloured black and pink, it doesn’t look or behave anything like iPlayer.

First off, it must be pointed out that, despite the inference from the BBC PR at the time, BBC catch up programming has been on the Virgin system since it launched, and is still available through the main Virgin menu system. Admittedly the amount went up from 50  to 400 hours when the new screens launched, but all this new content was also made available through the Virgin menus.  The new iPlayer menu screens therefore don’t offer the only route to the BBC catch up content in the Virgin TV VOD system.  If you want to see yesterday’s Cash in the Attic, you can go to the main Virgin A-Z menu and select A-C, and you will find the programme you were after.

Secondly, the TV iPlayer is not connected to the internet or to the main iPlayer servers or content network.  The iPlayer branded menus merely point back at the same episode of Cash in the Attic on the Virgin servers that the Virgin branded  screens do.  Once you start playing the video, the Virgin VOD controls take over. This means that none of the presentation twists or web functionality that we have come to expect from the web iPlayer exist on the Virgin service.

Thirdly, there is the strange absence of TV channels (and radio channels for that matter).  On PC iPlayer you have a choice of looking for content via ‘Channel’ branded menus, via ‘Category’ or genre clusters, via editorialised clusters such as ‘Most Popular’ or ‘TV Highlights’, or via a very slick search functionality.  On the TV version almost all of these options have been removed.  Radio does not appear at all and all TV channel references have been removed. You are left with a genre based menu, and a very temperamental search function.

The one interesting innovation that ‘TV iPlayer’ has delivered is the ability to jump into BBC catch up content whilst watching a BBC channel.  This functionality is not currently available to any other broadcast channel who offer catch up content on the Virgin system. However, it raises an interesting question about whether this feature should be built by the broadcaster (as in this instance) or should be provided as standard across all broadcasters by the platform (as on Tiscali/Homechoice and a number of European cable platforms).  We would favour the later, as it creates a uniform menu approach for the poor customer.

Now none of this would really matter if wasn’t for two things.  The fact that the BBC keeps telling us that the thing that has appeared on Virgin is iPlayer, when it clearly isn’t, and more importantly that the BBC keep telling us that people are using it, when they clearly aren’t.

When announcing performance statistics, the BBC have taken to calling any use of a BBC catch up show on Virgin, as ‘TV iPlayer use’, irrespective of the route that users chose to find the show.   However, we surveyed 750 Virgin homes to ask how they access BBC catch-up shows, and over 80% claimed to be rejecting the black and pink painted menus and to be still using the Virgin A-Z menus.   The BBC PR department claims these people as ‘TV iPlayer users’, when it is clearly aren’t.  They are merely Virgin on-demand users who have chosen a BBC show.

As a consumer, this stuff doesn’t matter.  As a commentator, it does rather feel like an iPlayer agenda being pursued.  Or more specifically, an inter-departmental land grab, as the iPlayer team attempt to grab and control the TV VOD world from under the nose of the channels part of the BBC, Vision.  I can understand why Virgin would allow themselves to be complicit in this in the short term, because it meant that the full power of the BBC’s marketing department was shouting about a functionlity on the Virgin platform that wasn’t available on Sky. For many Virgin customers who had yet to experiment with on-demand functionality, this may have broken down some of their reservations and encouraged trial.  But as the months go on, it must feel to Virgin that this fake iPlayer is becoming more like a cuckoo in the nest.

I like to think that the organisation that brought us Life on Earth would be able to spot the difference between a duck and a cuckoo.

Note: A truncated version of this opinion piece was published in NMA’s Comment Section this week.


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