BBC iPlayer, the BBC’s streaming service, has recently undergone a significant update that promises to improve the viewing experience for its users considerably.
Ever been in that frustrating situation where you hear your neighbours cheer a goal before you even see it on your stream? Or waited impatiently for a live show to become available on demand?
The iPlayer team has listened to these common gripes and is stepping up its game.
With its latest update, BBC iPlayer is tackling two significant issues head-on: reducing the delay in live streaming and making shows available on-demand faster than ever.
This isn’t just a minor tweak – it’s a major overhaul designed to enhance the viewers’ experience – so here’s everything that these new updates bring.
For those who need a refresher, BBC iPlayer is the free streaming service provided by the BBC, that allows users to watch live and on-demand TV (and radio shows) from the BBC’s ongoing TV schedule and from the BBC’s archives.
The service launched in 2007, and has since become one of the most popular streaming services in the UK – although it is still, to this day, used by a fraction of those who watch the BBC every day.
Initially, iPlayer was only available on desktop computers, but it has since expanded to include streaming devices, Smart TVs and mobile phones.
BBC iPlayer’s Summer 2023 Upgrade
During the summer, the BBC iPlayer team was hard at work on two “under the hood” changes that will greatly improve two important aspects of the streaming app.
1. Rapid Availability Of Programmes On BBC iPlayer
The age of instant gratification has conditioned us to expect immediate access to content, especially in the realm of digital streaming.
Recognising this, BBC iPlayer has taken significant strides to meet these expectations with its latest update, focusing on the rapid availability of programmes.
Until now, once a programme was broadcast live, viewers had to endure a waiting period before it became accessible on iPlayer as an on-demand title.
This delay was attributed to the time-consuming process of converting broadcasted programmes into high-quality on-demand videos.
The length of the programme directly influenced the duration of this wait.
For instance, longer programmes like Strictly Come Dancing or Match of the Day meant a more extended waiting period, much to the chagrin of eager fans.
Since you can no longer record a programme and then watch it instantly – people now rely more and more on the availability of the streaming, on-demand versions of programmes.
Introducing ‘pseudo VOD’ on iPlayer
To address this challenge, the BBC is introducing a technology called ‘pseudo-VOD’.
Instead of waiting for the entire programme to end and then beginning the high-quality processing, this innovative system cleverly repurposes the live segments of video from the ongoing iPlayer stream.
These segments are used to craft a temporary on-demand video, which is then immediately made available as soon as the programme concludes.
This approach effectively bridges the waiting time, ensuring viewers can access their desired content almost instantly after the live broadcast.
So, while the temporary video serves immediate viewer needs, iPlayer continues to process the high-quality on-demand version in the background.
Once this superior version is ready, it seamlessly replaces the temporary video, ensuring that viewers always have access to the best possible quality.
There’s one downside to consider, however – the instant version is likely to be of lower quality than the final, processed version. Therefore, if you value video quality more than rapid watching – you might still want to wait for the ‘final’ highest-quality version.
2. Reduced Streaming Latency
In the world of live streaming, every second counts.
The delay between the actual live event and its appearance on a streaming platform, known as latency, can significantly impact a viewer’s experience, especially during real-time events like sports matches.
Of course, if everyone, everywhere, watched a streaming version with the same latency/delay – then it wouldn’t matter as much.
But since some people may be watching via Freeview, satellite, or even listening on the radio – then long streaming delays become problematic.
BBC iPlayer’s recent update has addressed this very concern, ensuring that viewers are closer than ever to real-time broadcasts.
The Latency Dilemma
Historically, viewers streaming live content on iPlayer experienced a lag of about 80-120 seconds compared to the traditional TV broadcast.
This latency isn’t unique to iPlayer – it’s a common challenge across all streaming platforms. The primary reason for this delay is to ensure a smooth and uninterrupted viewing experience.
Streaming a live event involves breaking down the video into smaller segments, which are then transmitted to the viewer’s device.
This segmentation process takes time, and to ensure that viewers don’t experience buffering or interruptions, platforms build in a delay, or ‘latency’.
The Technical Breakthrough
BBC iPlayer’s update has successfully reduced this latency by a significant 20 seconds.
This improvement was achieved by overhauling and modernising the systems responsible for processing live video.
In the past, the technology used took a variable amount of time to prepare each video segment, necessitating a longer built-in delay to account for worst-case scenarios.
However, with the introduction of newer systems, the preparation time for each segment has become both shorter and more predictable.
This predictability means that iPlayer can confidently reduce the built-in delay, knowing that each segment will be ready for transmission in a shorter, consistent timeframe.
For the average viewer, this reduction in latency translates to a more real-time viewing experience.
This is especially crucial during live sports events or reality competitions, where reactions and emotions are instantaneous.
Imagine the frustration of hearing a neighbour’s cheer during a crucial football goal, only to witness the same moment on your stream a minute later.
With the reduced latency, such discrepancies are minimised, bringing the streaming experience closer to the immediacy of live TV.
More iPlayer Upgrades Are Coming
While the 20-second reduction is a commendable achievement, the BBC has hinted at further improvements in the pipeline.
Collaborative efforts with BBC R&D aim to bring streaming latency even closer to that of traditional TV broadcasts.
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