Thursday, August 04, 2005

BBC past and future

The BBC web site may be a bit boring on the interface front, but it's easy to use and it has content from sixty years of broadcasting. It doesn't just rest on the past either. Where PBS in America seems to be falling behind the crusty old beeb is doing stuff like developing new episodes of Dr Who in Flash, and even developing its own streaming codec.

Their radio shows stretch from live broadcast through to repeats of forty, fifty, even sixty year old shows. You can listen to the news or to the fifty year old Goon Show (think surrealism with laughs). These shows are transmitted in what a purist might consider very lo-fi but it is sufficient to play back on a PC or an iPod. My ears are pretty old so I even find music quality acceptable from rock (Coldplay and REM concerts recently) to classical. 44 kilobits per second is poor even for mid range MP3 (128kbps) but for most of this stuff it is enough. If you really must have 5.1 surround sound high definition you will need to wait a while, they seem to be experimenting with it but not outside Europe. Me, I'd rather have the range of shows that fits in with the multiplication model favoured here and in Europe not to mention meaning that I don't need to upgrade yet again.

The overall cultural philosophy is still quite Reithian in that the content is there for you to be taught, entertained and informed. More modern technology is represented, for example a complete Dr Who adventure done in Flash plus real actors. As yet interactivity is not a major feature though it is increasing. Back with that Reithian approach this tends to be educational like French lessons for schools but there is also the rather more subversive open source streaming project.

The BBC has always done a lot of its own research. Well now it is extending that to a co-operative community model where volunteers can help as programmers, testers and documentation writers. Look up dirac in the BBC site and you will find yourself at Sourceforge the major open source site. dirac is a video streaming codec that the BBC started and has now released to open source development. A streaming codec allows video images to be broken up at the provider end, transmitted, then reconstructed so, for example, a browser plug-in can let you watch video. In essence it is the plumbing underneath the pictures.

One reason they are doing this is that at present they use proprietary technologies like Real Networks player for radio and video replay. This is usually hidden in their own radio player extension to the browser which is excitingly called Radio Player. This is relatively easy to implement but it makes them dependent on proprietary systems which could become a problem for a public service broadcast provider – think cost, embedded adverts and data collection from clients amongst other things. With dirac they can be independent of that.
So, from the past they are letting us hear a lot of old programs (are you listening TVNZ) while they are encouraging enthusiastic volunteers to help them produce technology for at least one Internet future. It shows how much an old style organisation can use, even create, modern mediation technology to revitalize itself and its services. All this and they get to annoy the British government on a regular basis!


At 8:52 PM, Blogger Luke said...

As a pom, I always liked the fact that BBC online was available to the rest of the world whilst 'middle England' grumbled incessantly about paying for this (through a TV license fee) just for the benefit of 'bloody foreigners'. But having spent some considerable years dutifully paying my license fee in the UK, I now find myself locked out of the latest phase in the BBC online project - the broadband content - because I'm now located overseas. The problem, of course, is that every hit costs the Beeb money and broadband AV content is expensive to distribute. This is no doubt a disincentive to TVNZ getting serious about broadband archives - that and the complex issues around rights which the lawyers have to thrash out. Anyway, I understand Christopher Eccleston plays Doctor Who these days. I grew up on Tom Baker (longest scarf, 70s perm etc.). Have they got old Dr Who's archived online?

At 8:11 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Archived online?

No. Available in various places, should one know where to look? *Quick check* Apparently so.

Regarding the BBC and Reithian values, I uncovered a fascinating information nugget the other day about the early days of the BBC. Apparently historians have discovered that Lord Reith installed an emergency cutoff switch to the main BBC broadcast centre, essentially to ensure that the broadcasts could be instantly and irrevocably shut down if anarchists, insurgents or moral bankrupts attempted to hijack the building and broadcast their own content.

Interestingly, the switch was located based on his old notes, and would certainly have worked.

Whether he'd have defined 'anarchists and moral bankrupts' using the checklist of 'Disagrees with me, Lord Reith,' is up for debate.

Interesting, no? We have an answer for "What would have happened if somebody discussed something Reith didn't want them to on air?"


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