Why can’t we have a common on-demand TV service?

For the past couple of weeks my Freeview TV reception has been dreadful. The BBC channels are okay, but most other things have a signal strength that is too low to watch – especially during bad weather.

It appears that the problem is the Oxford transmitter, which has been replaced with a reserve transmitter while the main one is upgraded in preparation for the “digital switchover” next year (more details here). As I’m on the edge of the range for this transmitter I never got a great signal strength in the first place, so until this work is finished – which could take weeks months yet – I’m left without the majority of channels.

“Just use the catch-up services over the web”, seems to be a common response from commenters on sites which mention this problem. They’re referring to the web-based apps which let viewers watch programmes they might have missed during the past week: BBC’s “iPlayer”, ITV’s “ITVPlayer”, Channel 4’s “4OD” and Five’s “Demand Five” – and that just covers the “traditional” five terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, not all the less well-known channels who probably have their own offerings. Watching programmes through these viewers is less-than-ideal for a number of reasons:

  • They’re web based, which means watching on a computer, or hooking a computer up to the TV and the audio system – possible, but a real pain
  • My computers are old or cheap machines running Linux – they’re fine for the normal day-to-day computing tasks I use them for, but full-screen Flash playback is a problem
  • If I don’t full-screen the player, I’m left with static web-page elements burning their marks into my plasma screen
  • Even if I get full-screen Flash going, the video quality isn’t exactly stellar due to the low bandwidth and small original image size

There’s one jewel in the crown of catch-up services, and that’s the BBC’s iPlayer. In all honesty their web-based version suffers from the same issues as any embedded Flash player (or similar technologies such as Silverlight). But the BBC have an ace up their sleeve in the form of iPlayer for the Nintendo Wii.

iPlayer for the Wii is wonderful. Yes, it’s still inferior quality to broadcast TV, but it has the distinct advantage of already being connected to the TV and audio system, and it’s operable from the sofa with the Wii remote. It’s not as good as a real TV signal, but it’s a damned sight better than any temporary hook-a-laptop-to-the-TV fix. Of course it also doesn’t help us much in this case as our BBC reception is still fine.

But I do have to question quite why we can get the BBC’s content via the Wii, but nobody else’s. Do we really still live in a world where each broadcaster has to code their own Wii channel independently? We don’t need a different set-top-box for each Freeview channel – they all conform to the same standards and can be decoded by any Freeview box. So why can’t they do the same for their catch-up content.

Please, TV companies, get together and sort this one out. I don’t want iPlayer for the Wii – I want “UK TV Player”, with the ability to watch any channel’s catch-up programmes. One application for the Wii would get me all the channels I watch, and then some. As would a single XBox360 program, or a PS3 application. Not to mention Windows, Macs, Linux and mobile phones.

If all the broadcasters clubbed together I’m sure they could make cost savings overall. They could focus their energies (and money) on a better user experience by making the “UK TV Player” available on as many operating systems and devices as possible. And people like me, stuck without a working Freeview signal, wouldn’t have to waste their time hooking a laptop up to the TV when there’s already a perfectly good games console more than capable of showing me their programmes.

Update, 22 March 2010: It looks like I’ll be without decent TV reception for even longer than expected 🙁

Comments (4)

  1. Other people have recommended tvcatchup.com as a possible solution, but despite its name it’s actually only for viewing live TV, rather than catching up with something that you’ve missed – or in my case something that was recorded, but poorly.

    Fortunately most of the things I want to watch or record are repeated several times across the schedules, so I’ve told my box to record all showings, rather than just picking up the first one. Usually I can pick together enough good bits to see the whole programme.

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