On Demand

Having used BBC’s iPlayer for quite a while I was recently convinced to install Channel 4’s 4OD On Demand service a couple of days ago. Technically, everything worked just great, and the design was lovely – in that it looked pretty, at least until you tried to use it. The experience was dreadful.

What follows is a bit of a rant, followed by some more general observations about on demand tv.

The range of programmes available on 4OD was great – new programming, recently screened stuff, and selected items from the extensive archives, including whole seasons of their own programming. Once I got it all working, the quality was excellent, both streaming and pre-downloaded. The interface – once I got to it – looked slick and modern. But both the process of downloading and installing it, ie, getting to a point where I could actually watch anything, was a nightmare. First, I was asked to download an application installer – fine. I was initially told I had an out-of-date version of flash, which sent me to adobe, who was obviously confused as I actually have the latest version. Having then ignored the complaint, flash posed no further problems. The next complaint – valid this time – was that I didn’t have the correct (latest) version of Windows Media Player. This is for a good reason: I avoid WMP when at all possible, and I vaguely knew that the latest version included all sorts of DRM technology, quite possibly the same reason C4 wanted to use it. Fine, I clicked, and the 4OD application proceded to launch Internet Explorer (!!! – what’s wrong with my default, Firefox?), sending me to microsoft’s download page. A download, a lengthly install, and what other than a system restart later, that particular hurdle had been crossed. It was actually the last technical hurdle – 4OD had everything it needed to work – but wasn’t quite ready to actually show me a TV program yet. For that, I had to register (usernames with unclear purpose, various personal details, etc – the explanation for needing DoB was that it would be used to identify me. I’m not sure that’s all that friendly). Excellent. All set and ready to go.

The program runs not in a browser, but in a self contained application window, which nonetheless feels slightly browserish (I’m assuming, from its earlier behavior and some later error messages, that it’s a self-contained IE window). The interface looks broadly modern and slick. But to watch anything, I have to first find the progamme and episode (reasonable enough), click play, tick that I am in fact over 16 (didn’t they ask me for my DoB earlier?), enter my username and password, and then click play again – then I can watch whatever I had chosen. Now, it clearly knows my account – I’m offered access to previously downloaded shows – so why do I have to repeatedly log on? My account has my DoB associated with it, so why do I have to tell it every time? When opting to download rather than stream shows, I have to ‘rent’ the show, for a price of 0.00, and go through the motions of placing an order. I am faced with IE error messages (“this page includes secure and insecure items…”), and on more than one occasion, the whole app has crashed just as the order is going through. This choice of process may have been made to make me comfortable ‘renting’, but crashing at the key stage doesn’t inspire confidence (the order does go through and work fine, in the end). The application is scattered with mislaid images replaced by that box-with-cross; nothing vital, but enough to irritate and make the whole experience feel somehow unpolished, in stark contrast to the BBC’s highly polished – although certainly not perfect – offering.

I actually don’t find the adverts preceding each show particularily bothersome, nor have I felt the need to test the DRM or had it get in my way – surely the two things that posed the greatest challenges to the service seeing the light of day in the first place. Advertising especially was a difficulty C4 had to overcome that the BBC didn’t, the seem to have done so pretty seemlessly. But somehow, in all of this, they seem to have missed some of the more basic aspects. The design looks good, but in actual use is clunky and sometimes downright obstructive to getting to what I want to watch, and offering up my eyeballs to the ads that are screened first. All the complex technological issues have been admirably dealt with, but the user seems to have been a little left behind.

No doubt, this was not for lack of talented designers and sharp minds, or effort on their part – it must have been an exciting project to work on. But I can only imagine the pain of design by comittee raring it’s ugly head – every department wanting a part of this new venture, bosses wanting to claim credit for its launch and success. It’s a pity, for there’s a lot to love in 4OD. But there’s a lot of friction and pain in getting to them, every time. I thought the idea was to encourage me to watch more, not to force me away? The channels have always competed on the strength of their content; broadly speaking, the experience has been linear and controlled by TV manufacturers. But with these services they have control over – and responsibility for – the majority of the offering for the first time, and more than ever now that I can get the same content through other sources if I want to, the experience matters.

Rant over.

I’ve grown up without a TV, and I’ve never owned one (although housemates have in the past). So having access to such a spectrum of full length TV shows (as opposed to full series, on dvd or downloaded, or short snippets on youtube), both on the BBC and C4, has been quite a change – and I presume it also makes me an unusual user. But as somebody who is coming at all these services not as an addition or replacement to a big box in the living room, a couple of things seem odd.

There’s an obvious need for what both broadcasters term “catch-up”: a scenario where somebody who would normally watch something on the box but missed a regular show wishes to catch up a day or two later, and both have very similar offerings in this respect. But to somebody more used to the multi-channel approach of the internet, where I get to choose what to watch when, it feels strange to have everything fitted into a “schedule”, which bears no resemblance to the schedule on which I actually watch anything. Whether BBC, 4OD, or youtube, I watch it when I click on play, not when the schedule says I should – and shows are no longer locked into a particular slot, whether prime-time or hidden away on an obscure channel at 6am. Every show is potentially primetime. This increasingly goes for people who are used to TV, too – TiVo, Sky+, and the practice of downloading shows as they are released in the states as opposed to waiting for them to be screened in the UK make sure of that. I get the feeling both the BBC and C4 are grappling with that, and aren’t quite sure what to make of it – it changes how they think about programming for the last half-century or so. C4, especially, have done a great job opening up their archives, and I believe th BBC is doing the same with their (incredible) extensive back catalogue and historical archives. It will be interesting to see how these sit alongside current programmes – and how time-sensitive shows (news, politics, sport) sit alongside less time-linked options in the future.

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