BBC Store – Initial Thoughts

After much ballyhoo, the BBC Store is finally with us, and well, um, it sells downloads and streams.

You buy episodes rather than rent them – although the prices are much of a muchness really with television. And then you play them back via the web, or in due course, mobile apps. To be honest, I’m surprised that the apps aren’t there at launch, but we’re told they’re coming.

Now it’s true that the BBC Store doesn’t offer particularly better value than other retail outlets. A few comparisons:

– Fawlty Towers costs £15.98 for two series on BBC Store, £14.99 on iTunes and £9 on DVD at Amazon
– Yes Minister costs £24.99 for three series on BBC Store, £9.99 on iTunes and £14.50 on Amazon (but you get two series of Yes Prime Minister in that boxset too!)
– Edge of Darkness costs £7.99 on BBC Store, £5.99 on iTunes, while the DVD is £4.17 on Amazon (an utter bargain whichever way)
– Planet Earth costs £10.99 for SD and £12.99 for HD on BBC Store, and the same pricing in iTunes, while the DVD is £7.71 and BluRay £10.90 on Amazon

(Note: I’ve not factored in the current 25% off they’re offering for introductory purchases)

Essentially the BBC isn’t able to undercut its rivals by selling programmes cheaper, but this random selection shows that it’s mostly more expensive.

However, if all of that sounds negative, then there is always the great redeeming feature of finding something you thought would never otherwise be available to buy.

I doubt that the current Helen Czerski series on BBC Four about Colour would have ever been made available to buy on disc, yet you can buy a download on BBC Store for a very reasonable £4.99 for the series.

Similarly episodes of BBC Four series Timeshift on some very esoteric subjects are also available to own; whereas they’d never have been made available to buy on physical media. Although it’s a shame that I can only see one episode of Arena (they claim two), which is the recent Nicolas Roeg edition, when I know there’s such a rich history to that series.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that there’s anyone alive who needs to own one of the 248 episodes (at time of writing) of Bargain Hunt that are available to own for £1.89 a pop, unless you actually appeared in it. In which case, didn’t you either record it at the time, or get the production company to send you a copy? But fill your boots otherwise!

Casualty isn’t the kind of series that regularly got DVD releases either, but there are 137 episodes (at time of writing) up for grabs if you just can’t get enough Charlie.

And every episode of Eastenders since August 2014 is there to buy too. (And there are over 400 episodes of Doctors come to that!)

I would imagine that the cost of adding programmes to the BBC Store is low, so putting these episodes online is probably near automatic and for the few devotees who do want to buy individual episodes then there’s minimal cost to stocking these programmes and selling them to those who want to own them. That’s the beauty of digital.

The store does let you know when episodes are still available to watch free of charge on iPlayer which is good, because episodes can reach the store as soon as they’ve aired.

Programmes usually include subtitling and occasionally sign language – almost certainly a rarity. And there is a parental lock available on programmes labelled as such. I must admit that I find these things fairly arbitrary – either being unrated (family friendly) or “G.” Who knows what determines a “G” rating?

But there are a few problems.

We’re promised mobile apps will follow, although I’d have thought that they should have been there for launch. And I can’t access my programmes from within the TV app versions of iPlayer right now. I can however reach them from the regular iPlayer site within My Programmes > Purchases. Again, we’re promised that this will be fixed in due course. This is all a bit unfortunate because I like to watch TV on, well, my television. I ended up using the Windows 10 app, and outputting the pictures via Micro DisplayPort on my PC to HDMI on my TV. All a bit messy really. Incidentally, there was a free Fast Show offer for users of the Windows 10 app.

It doesn’t make clear anywhere whether episodes are in HD or not – you have to click on a price before it tells you. Clearly that won’t be the case for older archive material, but it’d be nice to know from just looking at the programme that it is available in HD. I also don’t like the practice of hiding higher HD prices behind lower SD ones. Sky is also guilty of this.

And while we’re told that HD is at least 720p, my TV is capable of more than that. I’d like to know that I’m getting 1080p if the programme was made in HD, as I would if I bought a BluRay.

There’s a serious lack of meta data behind the store from what I can see. I can’t search by actor, writer or director, unless the store has already created a section for them – so I can search for Benedict Cumberbatch or Dennis Potter, but few others. That’s a big miss as both Netflix and Amazon realise a lot of people look for things starring particular people. It would be great for finding “before they were famous” appearances in Casualty and the like.

I did find some pricing oddities including a Timeshift episode priced at £1.89 for SD and £12.99 for HD! Definitely a mistake, and in any case, it’s a bit dubious having increased HD prices for a series made up largely of SD archive material anyway that for the most part has just been upscaled to HD.

The FAQ on the BBC Store downloader only mentions Windows 7 to Windows 8.1. They might want to mention Windows 10 – even just pointing you to the app (I searched for it in the Microsoft Store). Similarly OSX stops at 10.10 with no mention of the now current 10.11. And the use of Microsoft SilverLight for offline downloads is a serious disappointment since it’s no longer being actively developed by Microsoft, and support is beginning to be removed from major browsers as most video streamers move to newer technologies.

One download device per account is very stingy. Let’s hope that’s upped when mobile apps come along otherwise it’s unsustainable.

There are also issues around descriptions of programmes. It’s nice that I can buy BBC Proms concerts, but I’d probably have to go somewhere else to get a bit more information:

Episode 13: Friday Night at the Proms: Bernard Haitink Conducts
4 Sep 2015 120 mins
Schubert’s Italian Overture and Ninth Symphony, and Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto.

I’d also like to know the orchestra, and it wouldn’t be hard to include a bit of additional detail in there from the Proms website.

I note that they’re steering clear of allowing user reviews.

And of course everything is full of DRM meaning that long term, I can’t be certain I’ll have continued access. From the help section:

We cannot guarantee that you will be able to stream or download content that’s in My Programmes forever. However, when our right to make content available is due to expire, we will do our upmost to inform you of this by email so that you have the opportunity to download and then continue to playback the content through the BBC Store Download Manager.

If I had DRM free copies of course, I could make them part of my back-up regime, and should the BBC Store ever close down, I wouldn’t lose anything, or be reliant on technology that might have limited or no future support. This is the key issue with all DRM-d media, and it’s why for the most part I continue to purchase physical copies ahead of DRM-filled downloads. Even though there is encryption on DVDs and BluRays, they can be ripped, and I can maintain access once players become redundant (I confess, I’m not looking forward to days of ripping however).

But I will forgive an awful lot when I find a series I’ve been after for years, is now available to buy on the BBC Store. In this instance I’m talking about Tender is the Night, the 1985 Dennis Potter adaptation of the F Scott Fitzgerald novel with Mary Steenburgen and Peter Strauss. I’ve longed to be able to get hold of a copy of this, and missed the recent BFI screening. Curiously the series is not listed in the Dennis Potter section of the store.

For me, issues surrounding pricing and playback options at launch can be mitigated by depth of catalogue. So let’s see BBC Store add more classic material to its output. I’d like to see things that aren’t currently available on DVD or BluRay, but have never been released before.

So dig deep into the archive and surprise me! (And get those mobile and smart TV apps sorted out.)

Note: Prices correct on 20 November 2015 when I wrote this.

[To readers of James Cridland’s Future of Radio newsletter – welcome! I should point out that the BBC still has a BBC Shop – it sells physical discs and, er, Doctor Who Christmas jumpers. BBC Store is their online only operation. Interestingly when Google first opened their online offering in the UK they localised it to be the “Google Shop.” They subsequently reverted back to Google Store. Yes, it’s Americanised, but I’m not sure that it’s not the right name for a digital outlet.]