On Thursday an email told me that I’m a beta tester for ABC Playback, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Internet TV trial. So here we go…
I’ll gloss over the geeky stuff because the massively-brained Simon Rumble has already done a technical reconnaissance. Just three key points there from me:
- It uses a Flash front end over XML program listings. Simon reckons it’ll be easy to hack up a Linux version for those who can’t use the official Windows and Mac interface. Or who want to avoid the pointless animations. Or who’d rather an easier-to-read high-contrast interface than trendy translucency.
- A 30-minute program is compressed to a mere 130MB, which seems a reasonable compromise between quality and bandwidth — at least for infotainment — given the ABC’s need to serve regional audiences out on the Information Super-goat-track.
- Did we really need to spend taxpayers’ money putting a clock in the top right of the screen? Computers already have clocks.
Technically it works just fine… but that’s not the real issue…
Disappointingly, ABC Playback seems more like the last gasp of old-style broadcast TV than a prelude to something new and wonderful.
Currently we’re offered three channels — though “channel” is a curious word in this context, since they’re just menu items.
- ABC CatchUp has a selection of programs from ABC1 and ABC2 available for a week after their original broadcast. Right now that selection is limited: The Bill (inevitable, I guess), games review program Good Game, At The Movies, The New Inventors and How Art Made The World.
- ABC Real is archived “factual and documentary” material — currently only the Sex in the Bush series about Aussie fauna on the bonk and the “magnificent documentary” The Kimberley: Land of the Wandjina.
- ABC Shop is just “previews” (i.e. advertising) for DVDs you can buy. I shall not mention it again. I shall not view it again: the ABC Shop already has a website.
This article seems to be about threes, so here’s a third set: the three reasons I was disappointed.
- The program selection was unappealing. OK, it’s only a test. I’m guessing the programs on offer were chosen to be “representative”. I can almost hear the dialog: “Well, The Bill is popular, we’d better have that, and David and Margaret too. Better have something for young people, what about Good Game? Oh, and something arty…” But why not have, say, The 7.30 Report and Lateline and the many other programs which are already available for download? Apart from How Art Made The World, everything on ABC CatchUp was disposable.
- The catch-up is still tied to broadcast schedules. Only episode 2 of How Art Made The World was available, and because it was originally screened on Tuesday night, it’s only available for another 3 days. Who wants to start a series from episode 2? The Bill has already disappeared because it’s Saturday and new episodes are broadcast tonight — but this is precisely the time that a fan would want to catch up if they’d missed out last week.
- I can’t save things for later. Perhaps this is the same point, but as ABC CatchUp is currently structured I have to watch episode 2 of How Art Made The World this week. I have to watch episode 3 next week. Why can’t I just spend a quiet evening watching the entire series? After all, it’s already been paid for, so the ABC’s aim should be to increase the audience, not put blocks in the way.
Actually there’s a fourth disappointment. I have to go to this “special place”, ABC Playback, to watch the programs. This isn’t how people are choosing to view online media.
They expect to be able to use the media aggregator of their choice, to compile playlists of material from any source, and consume it when they want. In this respect, ABC Playback is a backwards step. It can’t be integrated with an existing media-consumption framework (unless someone like Simon hacks it), the playlists can contain only the ABC programs on offer, and things disappear according to arbitrary rules.
And there’s a fifth disappointment: I can’t schedule program downloads to happen late at night during my ISP’s off-peak time. I can only download as I watch.
Actually there’s a sixth disappointment too: where are the RSS feeds?
Again, I have to go to the special website and log in, just to see if there’s anything new. Wrong.
I do understand this is a trial. I do understand that storage space might be limited, or that there might be copyright restrictions — but they’re not my problems. This is precisely the old-medium thinking that needs to be overcome. And that’s where the effort needs to be expended — not on meaningless Flash animations to impress senior management.
Delivering broadcast-quality video to lots of viewers over the Internet isn’t rocket science. It’s just storage space and bandwidth — routine engineering problems. And as Norway’s national broadcaster has already demonstrated, it’s easy if you use BitTorrent instead of fearing it.
What the ABC needs to address is how it delivers its Charter obligations in the new age of the Internet.
(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and public sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:
(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and
(ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;
(b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:
(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs; and
(c) to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.
Perhaps in the case of ABC Television, that word “broadcast” keeps causing problems…
“Broadcast” still has that sense of “we spend millions of dollars making packaged entities called ‘programs’ which we then transmit at you”. In radio — and perhaps especially in the 4000-odd hours of talk and talkback radio I produced for the ABC — there’s already the sense of “broadcasting” as “managing a dialog”.
And this is the real challenge. How does the ABC contribute to “a sense of national identity” when everybody who isn’t totally poverty-stricken has a computer or telephone with a camera, a microphone and editing tools? When they all have access to broadcast services like Ustream or Justin.TV?
Talking about “national identity” is no longer the purview of a professional media class… and that’s where I’ll leave this already-long thought for today.