Online television: Channel surfing

The BBC iPlayer is just the start of a revolution in the way we watch TV. Tim Walker casts his eye over what the internet has in store

Daytime television in Uzbekistan is semi-arid, like the climate. Today, there's an in-depth report on a trade fair for the fossil-fuels industry. In Chile, meanwhile, a man in a top hat made from aluminium foil is in the middle of a frantic telephone call as part of a show along the lines of Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (non-Spanish speakers can deduce as much from the incessant laughter track). In Côte d'Ivoire, a Christian TV network is showing hammy adaptations of Bible stories. And back across the Atlantic in Suriname, a Shakira song is being used to advertise lager.

This snapshot of global culture is brought to you by the power of internet television (specifically, a minor website, in the global scheme of things, called wwiTV.com). Not only can you now watch those chumps off The Apprentice being told they're unfit to soil the sole of Sir Alan's shoe, but you can also tune in to channels that would otherwise be off-limits, from internet-only broadcasters like Canadian network VBS TV and Al Gore's Current News, to international operators covering, well, trade fairs and top hats.

The daddy of online broadcasting is the BBC iPlayer, which since its launch late last year has swallowed up between 3 and 5 per cent of all internet usage in the UK. More than 42 million programmes have been watched using the service. That seven of the top-20 shows were episodes of Torchwood (adding 10 per cent to the show's total viewing figures) says much about the net nerds drawn to internet TV, but then 100,000 also used it to watch the first episode of The Apprentice. The iPlayer appeals to a mass of people previously unimpressed by the web.

Now, iPlayer is available on television sets via the Nintendo Wii, which means that catching up on Mad Men no longer need be a solo experience. The corporation is in talks with Virgin Media about offering iPlayer through its broadcast platform. And some anonymous bright spark has also devised a way to watch iPlayer with a PlayStation 3 – with the BBC's tacit approval, if not their collaboration.

The iPlayer website is so popular that internet providers demanded the corporation help fund service upgrades to save the web from meltdown. They claim that if nothing is done to ease the strain placed on the network by so much video content, the internet may pack up altogether. Ofcom has estimated the cost of the necessary upgrades at £830m.

Later this year, the ISPs will have an even bigger blockage to squeeze through their pipes, with the arrival of Project Kangaroo. A joint venture between BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV, Kangaroo will be an archive site collecting content from the UK's four largest terrestrial channels, allowing viewers to catch up on their favourite shows even after the seven-day iPlayer window closes. Kangaroo will be a commercial concern, complementing iPlayer and 4 On Demand by offering a mix of ad-funded and pay-per-view content. It aims to do for online TV what Freeview did for digital.

According to industry experts, the BBC is pursuing a policy of "fewer, bigger, better" shows; the more viewers are freed from a rigid viewing schedule, the more flagship shows like The Apprentice and Doctor Who will be surrounded by an ocean of no-budget filler.

However, the iPlayer success of BBC3 shows like Torchwood and Gavin and Stacey is heartening, and suggests that niche programming has a home online, too. As well as watercooler TV – say, the last episode of Lost – Kangaroo will also carry a library of other, more niche series. A BBC spokesperson suggests The Mighty Boosh as an example of a leftfield show that appeals to an internet-savvy audience, and rewards repeated viewings.

"Project Kangaroo is potentially an even bigger watershed than iPlayer, because there are so many broadcasters involved," says Lisa Campbell, editor of Broadcast magazine. "They're in discussions with Channel Five and other broadcasters to join the party as well. But so far the structures of the television business aren't changing massively. Some major broadcasters have launched digital offshoots, but they're still quite few and far between."

While broadcasters inch ever in to the online arena, some big online players are edging towards television. Bebo, the social networking site used by ITV to virally market Gossip Girl, just generated the first web-to-TV leap with Sofia's Diary. Fiver, the new teen channel from Five, bought the online soap on the basis of its 500,000 Bebo views per episode – a ready-made audience that few broadcasters would turn down. Bebo's second televisual success is KateModern, another online soap, in which viewers can suggest where the action should lead next.

New online-only broadcasters are cropping up by the day, though few can match the quality of mainstream broadcasters. One exception is Al Gore's Current TV, which aims to serve as an "independent voice" for 18- to 34-year-olds who "want to learn about the world in a voice they recognise". Its short, viewer-generated "pods" of programming won the channel an Emmy for best interactive television service last year.

"Current TV is well-respected," says Campbell. "They've got an interesting proposition with some unique content. But it is still very niche. The benefit that mainstream channels have is the strength of their brand and their ability to market their shows. They can cross-promote online, on-screen and so on, and get high audiences. If you're an online niche player, you don't have the marketing budget to do that."

Even big broadcasters such as the Beeb have found it hard to make any money, so far, from their online endeavours. "They're getting into it because they feel they have to in order not to be left behind," Campbell explains. "But it's proving difficult to find the right commercial model to generate revenue. People expect things to be free online, so they want to get sponsorship and advertisers on board to make it free.

"There's also been a delay regarding rights for online content, and who owns it in particular territories. it's complex; there are a lot of issues which have prevented the content getting out there, which explains why there are so many illegal downloads. Those things need to be worked out before we can say this is the next big thing."

Web-soaps or Wallace & Gromit – who says there's nothing on?

BBC iPlayer ( www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer )

Weekly viewer numbers recently hit 1.1 million, up from 750,000 in January. Since the service's Christmas launch, more than 42 million programmes have been viewed. All the corporation's flagship shows, including The Apprentice, are available for up to a week, and there's no pesky software downloads – the shows can be streamed straight from the site, and they buffer remarkably fast.

4OD ( www.channel4.com/4od )

Channel 4 beat the Beeb to the punch by launching 4 On Demand in November 2006. The service is available online and through cable television networks, and has free archive episodes of programmes, such as Desperate Housewives, for up to 30 days. Unlike iPlayer, however, the online version requires you to download a Mac-unfriendly piece of software.

ITV Catch Up ( www.itv.com/catchup)

ITV is joining forces with the BBC and Channel 4 for Project Kangaroo. Until then, you can watch shows from all four ITV channels from the past 30 days via their Catch Up site.

VBS.TV ( www.vbs.tv )

Vice Magazine, the Canadian countercultural freebie turned global behemoth, launched its online channel in October, with Spike Jonze as creative director. Streaming pop culture, travel and reportage in a tone familiar to readers, it has already screened a documentary about an Iraqi heavy metal band as well as a programme on North Korea.

Joost ( www.joost.com)

A sleek site full of free programming, which took 150 software developers two years to perfect (it's still at the "open beta" stage – effectively, being road-tested by the public), Joost has a vast range of shows for anyone with an operating system recent enough to download the peer-to-peer software. The site has licensing deals with programme-makers including Endemol, RDF and Aardman Animation.

Current TV ( current.com)

Launched by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in 2005, Current TV streams short, independent-minded "pods" or short programmes, such as a Zimbabwe documentary. The content is created by users, then filtered and approved by the in-house programming department. Last year, the network won an Emmy award for best interactive television service.

Wwi TV ( www.wwitv.com )

Worldwide Internet TV streams live programming from across the globe, a lot of which is either unintelligible or plain rubbish, but it's a useful resource nonetheless. There's even a Kazakh channel available for those who will inevitably wish to seek out the real Borat. Strangely rewarding.

Mania TV ( www.maniatv.com)

A US-based online channel that claims to have 10 million viewers per week, Mania TV cancelled its user-generated content last year due to lack of demand. The professional stuff that's on there is of some quality. Mania also has a live stream to generate the illusion of a regular television channel.

Bebo ( www.bebo.com/Video.jsp)

The social networking site recently generated the UK's first web-to-television crossover show, with online teen drama Sofia's Diary being bought by Five for its new teen channel, Fiver. It's also the home of web-soap KateModern. This week, KateModern's plot will crossover with that of LonelyGirl15, the American web-soap.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Environment
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino
environmentThe death of a white northern rhino in Kenya has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    IT Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells