The Media Column: 'You could watch the best of last night's TV on the train to work'

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The Independent Online

Ben Lavender is masterminding the way that we will watch television in the future. A gangling 36-year-old with close-cropped hair, wearing a blue Fred Perry polo shirt, he sits in a BBC office in Bush House on the Strand in London, where he is perfecting the little-known project that he has been working on for the past 20 months.

Lavender was one of the victims of the collapse of the short-lived dotcom boom. He had set up a website called Mode, to distribute music and video, only to see it crash in the wake of September 11.

After joining the BBC, he came back inspired from a holiday in Thailand and was working through his Christmas holiday in an empty office when he had his "eureka" moment: the idea of making BBC programmes as accessible to the downloading generation as music files and ring tones already are.

If it comes off, it will mean that the "Watercooler Moment" - that informal piece of television critiquing that takes place in the office on those few mornings when a hot new programme has been screened the night before - will never be the same again.

Because if Lavender - one of the BBC's cutting-edge "senior production technologists" - gets it right then we need never again experience that pang of regret that inevitably accompanies the news from a colleague that you have missed a rare piece of quality drama or a first taste of an emerging comedy classic.

Lavender's Interactive Media Player (known as an iMP) will mean that we can have instant access not just to last night's programmes but to shows from throughout the previous week.

It is a revolutionary idea, a step further down the road from the hugely popular Sky Plus and TiVo personal video recorders that already allow early-adopting viewers to create their own channels by stockpiling programmes that they prefer not to watch at the time of transmission. Sky Plus is already in 397,000 homes and there are plans to increase this to 2.5m by 2010 (although there will soon be at least 10 different PVRs on the market).

The iMP revolution, meanwhile, is already being enjoyed by a select group of 1,000 non-BBC employees who are taking part in trials of the device, which are due to be completed by 26 August.

Last week, I got to have a go. The way it works is that you simply go to the calendar date of the programme that you missed, open it up and there before you is the digital equivalent of a listings page from the Radio Times.

You can search for your programme by genre or title. If you wanted to catch up on all the music shows from the previous week you could search by genre and be offered everything from Later with Jools Holland to Top of the Pops.

The speed at which you can download the television programmes depends on the internet connection that you have. And this is where the iMP idea still leaves something to be desired.

If you are in one of the four million homes with a broadband connection, then it could take you 44 minutes to download a DVD-quality version of an episode of The Office. If you're in more of a hurry, you can have it ready to view in nine minutes, but the picture quality deteriorates to a point where you might feel as if you have suddenly decamped to the Orkneys.

For the purposes of this trial, Lavender set up the iMP on a regular Dell laptop. In real life, this would mean that you could watch the best of last night's TV on the train coming into work, either on the laptop or even downloaded onto a phone.

The technology would work equally well on a home-media centre, the hybrid of family TV set and personal computer that is already in more than half of all Japanese households.

One more drawback with the system is that rights issues mean that the BBC is only proposing to allow shows to be available for up to one week after transmission (the iMP tells you how many days you have left before your downloaded programmes disappear into the ether).

Then there is the question of whether other broadcasters would wish to join in - although there could be advantages to commercial channels in knowing people's viewing patterns and being able to tailor ads to suit them.

Already in America, viewers who are prepared to pay for a special cable service are able to go back up to three months to load episodes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

The beauty of the BBC plan, if it comes off, is that we will be able to get the corporation's weekly back catalogue for free.