BBC iPlayer goes a little social – but what can it learn from YouTube?

BBC’s iPlayer, which offers but live TV and radio and an on demand catch-up service, has gone live with a new version that adds personalisation as well as links to Facebook and Twitter for limited interaction with your social media contacts.

Presenting a personalised iPlayer web page is more demanding, as every visitor sees a slightly different page. Technical Architect Simon Frost explains that the BBC adopted PHP and the Zend framework in order to enable sharing of components and modules – previously the site was built with Perl and server side includes.

It has been interesting to see the reaction in user comments to the announcement by James Hewines, which are more negative than positive. The gist of the complaints is that many users want the site to get out of the way rather than be a more interactive web destination, and find that the new version adds clutter rather than speeding navigation:

This site should not be fun to use. It should be … a very brief stop between powering the computer up and watching or listening a programme.

This does not necessarily mean the BBC is getting it wrong. It is not really hard to find items, and linking BBC content to social networks does have a certain inevitability. It is a shame though that the most interesting feature described by Anthony Rose back in May seems to be missing – integration with Live Messenger so that you can see your contacts comment on the live content. This is what it was meant to look like:

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That said, does it make sense to hook into Live Messenger when Facebook is more at the centre of today’s social networks on the Web? Still, this may appear at some future date.

As it is, we get only limited social interaction through recommendations. No ratings, no public comments or reviews attached to items, nothing that might add real interest to the site.

Contrast this with YouTube. It is a different kind of broadcasting of course, much of it amateur, quantity not quality, no live broadcasts as such, and content that persists (whereas BBC content disappears after a few days). Perhaps because it was born as a social media site, rather than being a traditional broadcaster trying to grok the Web, YouTube does community to a far greater extent than the BBC. Individuals can even create their own “channels” of content, becoming a destination within a destination that appeals to friends or those with the same niche interests.

The BBC’s exploration of social media is just too timid to make an impact. I interviewed Rose back in 2008 and he made a telling comment about how the BBC would remain a place safe from the unpleasantness of one-star ratings and nasty comments:

Rose says that upcoming iPlayer features, such as ratings and discussions, will be restricted to networks of friends, rather than made public. "Rating works really well in YouTube where you’ve got a million videos. In iPlayer, if you rate Parliament channel as zero stars, are you saying that Parliament is rubbish, or that you just don’t want to watch Parliament? Rating in the context of the BBC is very useful, but only when you’ve got a friends network."

Unfortunately safe also means dull, and I doubt the social aspect of iPlayer will make much impact as currently implemented.

I still love iPlayer. I have less time to watch than I would like; but I clicked the HD channel and was soon watching a stunning programme about scaling ancient buildings, in this case Durham Cathedral. Played full-screen, the photography was beautiful and the content both entertaining and educational, the BBC at its best.

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Note that there was no need to involve the desktop player to enjoy this; it worked fine from the web; and I suspect that the download player gets relatively little use compared to the iPlayer site – the BBC won’t discuss this, saying “We cannot report on playback of downloads due to technical and data privacy restrictions”, which makes little sense to me.

Perhaps the comments are right – the BBC should concentrate on its content, and leave the social stuff to others who do it better.

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