BBC introduces flexible TV with online trial

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The Independent Online

The future of television is almost upon us: the day when we spend our train or bus journey to work catching up on the shows we missed the night, or even several days, before.

The future of television is almost upon us: the day when we spend our train or bus journey to work catching up on the shows we missed the night, or even several days, before.

Later this month, the BBC will launch a pilot project that could lead to all television programmes being made available on the internet. Viewers will be able to scan an online guide and download any show. Programmes would be viewed on a computer screen or could be burned to a DVD and watched on a television set. Alternatively, programmes could be downloaded to a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), a hand-held computer that is becoming increasingly popular in Britain and sells from about £70.

The revolutionary plan has been drawn up by Ashley Highfield, the BBC's director of new media and technology. He revealed details of the project to The Independent last week. He said: "If we don't enter this market, then exactly what happened to the music industry could happen to us, where we ignore it, keep our heads in the sand and everybody starts posting the content up there and ripping us off."

Mr Highfield said the quality of the programmes will be so high that the experience of watching a show on a PDA will be similar to viewing an in-flight film on screens in the backs of seats on passenger aircraft.

The three-week pilot, called iMP (Internet Media Player), will allow 500 of the corporation's staff to step into this new world of viewing. They will be given PDAs and access to a range of BBC programmes, which will include the soap EastEnders and the hospital drama Holby City. Also available will be the series One Life, the dramas Cutting It and Grease Monkeys, the motoring show Top Gear and news bulletins.

Sneak previews of parts of programmes will also be offered, but no full shows will be viewable until after they have been broadcast. The programmes will then be available online for a week.

"We might get an over-positive response because I think a lot of BBC staff would love to be able to catch up on the programmes they missed last night on the bus or on the train," Mr Highfield said. "The quality is staggeringly good. It's slightly better than you get on the seat-backs if you are in a plane, although PDAs have a slightly smaller screen."

After the BBC pilot, an external trial will be launched with 1,000 people selected from subscribers with the broadband service providers AOL, BT and Tiscali.

The trial will examine whether people watch more television with iMP and if they change their viewing patterns, such as "starting to watch EastEnders in the morning", Mr Highfield said.

"If it seems that for a substantial part of the audience this is a very valuable way to consume media, then this is something we are going to have to take seriously," he said. "We will have to take some punts but if the feedback is strongly positive we will have to look at how we clear bulk content and how we start to roll this out widely."

The plan is to make all television programmes from the previous week available on the internet, using a programme guide similar to that already used on digital television.

The inspiration for the idea is the BBC Radio Player scheme, which has made the corporation's radio content available online for listeners unable to catch programmes at their scheduled times. The service was expected to be popular with fans of late-night shows, such as Radio 1's dance music programme Essential Selection, but has also been embraced by fans of Radio 4. "We knew it was going to appeal to the downloading generation. The surprise was that we serve several hundred thousand fans of The Archers every week," Mr Highfield said.

The iMP project is driven by research showing that people increasingly find it difficult to align their highly valued free time with fixed television schedules. Homes with personal video recorders (PVRs), like Sky Plus, already "time-shift" 70 per cent of the programmes they watch to more convenient viewing times.

"Amongst younger audiences television is having to compete against other media as well, not just different channels but trying to get eyeballs away from PlayStations and the internet," Mr Highfield said. "The fundamental shift in the music industry and the audio-radio industry to people consuming what they want, how they want, when they want, has given us a pretty clear idea that this is something that's going to happen to video."

He said putting certain types of programmes, particularly sports events, on the internet presented problems over legal rights, but the difficulties were not insurmountable. By launching iMP, the BBC hopes to avoid being left at the mercy of a software giant such as Microsoft, which could try to control the gateway to online television.