Speaking in one of a series of lectures organised by the BBC to inform the debate over public service broadcasting, legendary actor and comedian Stephen Fry hit out at the BBC iPlayer downloadable content service. “There is this marvellous idea the iPlayer is secure,” he said. “It’s anything but secure.”
“The BBC is throwing out really valuable content for free,” Fry went on. “It shows an incredible naivety about how the internet and digital devices work.” As evidence, he revealed his own bypassing of the iPlayer copy protection system to transfer programmes to his iPhone.
It’s damning stuff for the young service, particularly coming from Stephen Fry who, on top of a celebrated acting career, has an alarmingly deep knowledge of tech. He recently stole our hearts with his gigantic smartphone history essay and iPhone review.
But if the BBC is unable to control the distribution of its content online, does that really mean disaster?
“The BBC is making a lot of enemies giving away free programmes to an internet that everyone else is trying to monetise”, claims Fry. Okay, but free? Free? What part of the £139.50 I pay each year is free?
Because I pay a TV license – and more specifically because I don’t have a choice in the issue – I consider that the BBC content is mine, bought and paid for. Not for commercial purposes obviously, but essentially my cash has gone to help make those programs so they can be put on air for me to consume if I want to. With a video recorder and a bit of forward planning I could consume any one of them if I so desired and that wouldn’t be considered harmful to competition.
To my mind, the iPlayer is merely an extension of the service I subscribe to, offering me MY programs to consume when I want to, the one and only difference being that I’m not hitting a record, I’m clicking play. As long as the Beeb can prevent non-license payers using the service, then any kind of restriction on my viewing is frankly unreasonable.
Fry believes that “It will soon be the work of a moment for my mother to get an iPlayer programme off her computer and on to her iPod, iPhone, or whatever device she chooses.” That is probably true, and it puts the Beeb in a tricky position especially with programme makers who’d rather like to make some extra cash off DVD sales at a later stage; having everything available as a free download certainly won’t help that.
But again, what if everyone and their mother were to circumvent the daft iPlayer DRM? As long as they’re license payers, they are merely consuming what they paid for in the way they want to.
Oh, I’m sure the precise wording of the TV licensing policy says we’re not actually entitled to a single damn thing and that our money is obligingly provided as a service to our great nation. But sod that, if we have to pay the license simply for owning a telly (no matter whether or not you actually watch anything on it) then there should be some tangible benefit to it.
I’ll agree that the situation may sorely affect programme makers and rival internet content providers and that the BBC and the British viewing public may come to rue the day that iPlayer launched because really the only way out now is to never have launched iPlayer in the first place. I can complain happily about iPlayer not offering me the flexibility I want and scream bloody murder if it ever closed down, but if nothing had ever been launched there would have been nothing to gripe about. Pandora’s box is open now and we’re stuck with it.
Perhaps what really needs to change is the license system itself, which ironically Stephen Fry was supposed to be defending in his talk. He did argue strongly against plans to skim off the top of the license fee to bail Channel 4 out of its funding gap, warning against “a ghetto-ised, balkanised electronic bookshop of the home; no stations, no network, just a narrowcast provider spitting out content on channels that fulfil some ghastly and wholly insulting demographic profile.”
The series of debates, organised by the BBC, precedes an expected change in the communications act before 2010. Certainly the future of the Beeb and the license fee itself remain in some doubt, and rather than shy away from emerging technologies, I wonder if some serious modernisation to the service is necessary to keep it going into the future.