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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
BBC to open up archive for trial
Remote control
The BBC wants to offer content across all platforms
The BBC is to open up its vast archive of video and audio in an on-demand trial involving more than 20,000 people in the UK.

Full-length programmes, as well as scripts and notes, will be available for download from the BBC's website.

The pilot is part of the BBC's plans to eventually offer more than a million hours of TV and radio from its archive.

The BBC's Future Media boss Ashley Highfield made the announcement at an industry conference in Cannes.

"Our audience increasingly want and expect to dictate how, when and where they get our services," he told the conference.

Mr Highfield, director of Future Media and Technology, said the BBC was starting to deliver content in a "hybrid environment", in which digital TV, radio, the web, set-top boxes and personal video recorders were combining to offer interactive services.

Apple Mac
The iPlayer will be re-engineered to work with Macs

He said the corporation's end ambition was "one day enabling any viewer to access any BBC programme ever broadcast via their television", and highlighted the need to bridge the divide between TV and content with online connections.

Broadcasters around the world are grappling with the shift to on-demand media, with many firms now offering content online or via mobile devices.

Channel 4 in the UK has launched its on-demand service via the net and cable services, while networks in the US are shifting content to platforms such as iTunes and the web.

At the Cannes event Mr Highfield announced:

  • The BBC's proposed iPlayer service, offering catch-up TV via the web and cable TV, would be re-engineered to work with Apple Macs and would eventually roll out to digital terrestrial TV (DTT) and set-top boxes.
  • A trial of hybrid set-top boxes which are connected to the net and can record TV to access BBC archive material.
  • The desire to "future-proof Freeview with additional advanced interactive and digital functionality" so it could offer catch-up TV and access archive material.
  • The archive trial will make available 1,000 hours of content drawn from a mix of genres to a closed number of people. About 50 hours - of both TV and radio programmes - will be available in an open environment for general access.

    Mr Highfield said: "It will test what old programmes people really want to see, from Man Alive to The Liver Birds, how they want to see them - full length or clip compilations, and when they want them - in 'lean-forward' exploratory mode similar to web surfing, or as a scheduled experience more akin to TV viewing."

    Liver Birds
    It will test what old programmes people really want to see, from Man Alive to The Liver Birds
    Ashley Highfield

    The trial would also be used for the BBC to understand just how much content should be offered free to viewers and "where we should draw the line between a licence fee funded service and a commercial service," said the BBC executive.

    The BBC hopes that the archive would one day be available online, and on TVs via set-top boxes, either future Freeview players or via Internet Protocol TV.

    "Getting our BBC iPlayer seven day, catch-up TV service and our archive pilot out on to the web is one thing, but clearly the biggest available audience is sat in front of the television," explained Mr Highfield.

    The BBC iPlayer is expected to be launched later this year but is still subject to approval from the BBC Trust.

    If launched, it is designed to offer a seven-day catch-up service for viewers who can download content onto their computers.

    The BBC said it planned to offer the service first on computers running the Windows operating system and then on cable TV and other platforms such as Apple Macs, media centre PCs and smart handheld devices, such as mobiles or PDAs.

    "Once we've done all that, we'll turn to the really tricky platforms: DTT via either PVRs or IP hybrid boxes."

    The BBC's plans for the iPlayer were put on hold earlier this year after its regulators, the BBC Trust, asked the corporation to look at whether the iPlayer should be platform agnostic.

    Mr Highfield said Apple's "proprietary and closed framework for digital rights management gives us headaches," but, "it is one of our top priorities to re-engineer our proposed BBC iPlayer service to work on Macs".

    Of Freeview's future, Mr Highfield said: "It's critical that Freeview evolves as a compelling and competitive alternative to cable and satellite."

    Mr Highfield said the BBC would be lobbying regulator Ofcom for allocation of spectrum to develop free high definition services for Freeview.

    "New, hybrid set-top boxes, that combine broadcast TV with an IP connection, give us additional opportunities to deliver on-demand services via Freeview," he said.

    "Hybrid boxes are a part of the future, as important - if not more so - than standard PVRs," he added.

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