ABC Playback: so this is the future of television…? Nope!

Screenshot from ABC Playback

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Miro TV logo

Increasingly, people watch media where they want to watch it — in a proprietary system like iTunes or Windows Media Player, or an open system like Miro TV.

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.

17 Replies to “ABC Playback: so this is the future of television…? Nope!”

  1. @jay: While ABC Playback “only” requires 1.1Mb/sec speeds, according to the home page, that speed must be sustained — which in practical terms yes you do need ADSL2+ (which they also state). These speeds are part of the broadband roll-out promised by the minister Senator Stephen Conroy. I don’t think we’ve seen any sort of firm timetable for that yet.

  2. I haven’t signed up for the beta, but in the preview video I can see a link to “go to download” for the chosen show. Do you see this? If not maybe the ABC are intending to allow raw downloads of the shows.

    My main technical question is: what video codec are they using behind the flash front end?

    (Hoping for H.264, but expecting Real …)

  3. Oh, and with regards to the inflexible viewing times, there are almost certainly licensing reasons behind these. Non-ABC shows are probably licensed for use with broadcast-like terms (ie certain times and regions and so forth). I don’t know for sure but I would guess that the flip side is true; free downloads of ABC-produced shows harms the prospects of licensing sales in other markets.

    IMHO it is the whole content licensing system that is out-of-touch with new types of media distribution, not just the ABC. We would of course like the ABC to be taking a leading role here, but particularly in the case of content that it has licensed (eg BBC stuff), there’s probably no scope for radical change.

  4. @Alastair,
    Re video codec. At the moment they’re using flv, but there’s an upgrade to the flash server scheduled (but waiting on ABC silos to rust) when they’re planning to serve H.264.
    The issue about a CPU-heavy flash front end will then be exacerbated by the heavier de-coding load from h.264.

  5. @Alastair: The “go to download” link takes you to the existing program website where there are links to whatever downloadable files are provided. So, f’rinstance, the link from the At The Movies item just goes to http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/.

    Yes, the copyright issues are the killer — and will be. I agree with what the CBC producer said in relation to their BitTorrent trial. And this is why I reckon effort should be spent on those issues, not stupid animations.

    Perhaps The Bill actually vanishes for that reason, not because of the licensing.

    @Fergus Pitt: Thanks for answering the codec question. I hope your ABC colleagues aren’t too pissed off with what I’ve written…

  6. @stilgherrian… the upside is always that there are people out there who care enough to criticise (nod to Jeff Jarvis pointing that out). Hopefully we’re big enough to avoid feeling defensive — not always easy in an environment of change — and act on suggestions where they’re possible.

  7. @Fergus Pitt: From my own time at the ABC, yes, people there are usually happy to receive (constructive) criticism. I only got shitty with complaining listeners if they were rude, not because they complained.

    The challenges facing the ABC are enormous, and it will be very interesting indeed to see how the organisation copes. I think you summed up the challenges for digital radio, for instance, very well on your own blog. And that will doubtless trigger an essay from me at some stage too.

    Interestingly, I’m now gettign enquiries from other media outlets about the subject of my little essay in Crikey today. “Stay,” as they say, “tuned”.

  8. Just some feedback on your critique of ABC Playback.

    To echo Fergus’ point, it’s a difficult balance to provide a video service that’s going to please all and at the same time experiment and at the same time provide a service that’s available broadly and easily (bandwidth notwithstanding) within some fairly severe constraints, not least the domain of digital rights.

    One of the ambitions of the project is to ignite debate about the consumption and dissemination of video “online”, so it’s great to see someone spend quality time on a critique.

    To give perspective to some of your points, bearing in mind this is a beta trial and we’re working on the service, the lineup and the definition of what it is whilst making the work in progress publically available:

    “Last gasp old technology” – Whilst complex and frustrating legal and rights wrangling continues, Flash-based video dissemination is the leading, scaleable technology to simply plug and play ondemand content. It also provides great potential for adding interactive handles to video-based content and merging said content with other forms of multimedia, catering for the emergence of the so-called “new and wonderful” (Stilgherrian).

    The beta programming lineup is emerging and we intend to have a far greater array of content by the middle of the year, including a strong news focus.

    The “highly compressed” – video is mindful of the download caps that the public has to contemplate when consumming ondemand content. Additionally, this content looks better on LCD TVs than on computer screens. ABC Playback, as a project, has been an inexpensive attempt to transition televisual media into a multi-screen space, one which includes the conventional TV screen, and merge the TV signal into a previously interactive space, the computer. People are doing this in different ways and ABC Playback, rather than an end game, is another method of doing this – easily available and easy to use.

    “Saving Things for later” – ABC Playback gives you a window within which to view content – long and short dependent particularly upon rights. You can add these items to a Playlist and watch them later. Many of the programs are available as downloadable vodcasts in other parts of ABC.net for those who want to keep the content and they’re linked to from the player. The login is specifically for the trial period, after which you’ll only need to login to access Playlist features.

    There’s a particular forum for debate: http://www2b.abc.net.au/tmb/Client/TopicList.aspx?b=98&dm=1

  9. @Sam: Thanks very much for such a detailed response, much appreciated — especially as it comes from an ABC insider.

    You’re right to stress that this is a trial. You must be having a hell of a time finding the balance — what with rights issues and, assuming the ABC hasn’t changed that much since I was there, inter-departmental friction. And of course there’s been no additional government funding for this. There should be — and lots of it.

    I guess I wrote my piece bouncing off the emotional reaction I had when I fired up ABC Playback for the first time. I live in Enmore in Sydney, and to say that TV reception is marginal is an understatement. Heavy jets flying almost immediately overhead destroy the digital signal, but if we add a pre-amplifier some electronic transmissions from the airport overload the input of our digital receiver. When I thought I might be able to download ABC programs over my ever-reliable ADSL2+ connection, I was jumping for joy. And when I found so few program there initially, the disappointment hit. My TV problem was not yet solved.

    I look forward to that additional news content mid-year!

    That said, I already watch The 7.30 Report online, because I can quickly pick the stories of interest, and also Newstopia from your SBS colleagues. I find navigating the quick-to-load “standard” websites less frustrating that the animation-filled interface of ABC Playback.

    I would love to be able to point Miro TV at the ABC.

    My comment about the video being “highly compressed” was for the Crikey essay, and I was comparing that with the HD TV offered by NRK and the SD TV from the CBC. The article here says: “A 30-minute program is compressed to a mere 130MB, which seems a reasonable compromise between quality and bandwidth β€” at least for infotainment β€” given the ABC’s need to serve regional audiences out on the Information Super-goat-track.” I think the balance is right for now — reflecting the appallingly slow Internet we have today.

    I’m in the minority, I realise, with a decent ADSL2+ connection that reliably delivers 12 or 13Mb/second download speeds.

    I’ll leave the argument about video codecs to those who know about them. However, yes, Flash is the easiest option for streaming video right now — well, the “least worse” anyway — and it does have wonderful ways of tying in other services. Most folks have it without adding anything new to their browsers, and only the hardcore geeks care about the proprietary vs open standards battle — which may or may not be A Good Thing.

    Fergus is right: at least we care about the ABC — and care enough to express our opinions. Our national broadcasters, ABC and SBS, are vital treasures. They face incredible challenges adapting their role in society into this new online realm. I guess I’d hoped that the jump into Internet TV was a jump a little further into the future.

    Maybe I need to re-read my essay Web 2.0? β€œHey, wait for us!”

    I’ll scour the forums over the next couple of days and report back.

  10. Both of them have quite pleasing interface, but only in front of the PC.

    Why doesn’t any of them actually bother to have some TV mode?

    I can’t access the ABC Playback from the US (stupid thing, ha? geo-restricted internet..), so was willing to give Miro a chance, but even before downloading it- I saved myself the trouble by reading this: http://www.aboutux.com/?p=11

    I guess we’re still waiting for a better player…

  11. @Andy: ABC iView, as Playback is now called, is indeed geo-restricted. [sigh] I should perhaps re-review it now that it’s operational and has become the main way I access ABC TV programming.

    You make very good points about the interface. Too much cruft. Just a clearly-readable list of programs would be good.

  12. it’s only been a year and I forgot it was called abc playback during the beta. I still think that this is a better name, as there’s nothing significant about the “iView”. you’re watching the same stuff… but it’s on the internet! in flash form!

    Now people were happy about there being a flash player for the PlaS3. whoopdy floosits.

    I think the takeaway message about iView, like most of what you’ve said is that it’s still locked up.

    they redesigned the interface recently.

    WOW, THATS GREAT, LET ME CHOOSE MY OWN BLOODY INTERFACE.

    I completely missed this post, yet this basically describes about all of my thoughts while using it (albeit not the ABC charter bit). πŸ˜›

    but yet, I still use it because it’s better than nothing, and I like being able to watch torchwood on a sunday afternoon.

    And flash being the ‘least worse’ way for distributing content is running a little thin now, with HTML5 looming, and popular browsers like firefox already supporting video natively.

    I’d love to see Sam come back and give us a little talk about why we can’t use HTML.

    there’s already a requirement for flash, cant there be another ‘beta’ for HTML5? I know I wouldn’t be the only one who would have said this at some point, what have the internal ABC discussions been around it? πŸ™‚

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