BBC to take on iTunes

[intro]The BBC's iPlayer music-and-video download service could prove to be Apple's biggest rival yet[/intro] The BBC's plans for a TV catch-up ser

The BBC's plans for a TV catch-up service for licence payers is slowly transforming into a serious rival to iTunes, delivering music and video from a variety of broadcasters to a media-hungry world.

The BBC is in a unique position in the UK: a taxpayer-funded broadcaster that can afford to produce best-of-breed TV and online services without the support of advertising. A pretty cushy position really, as its rivals ITV and Sky often point out, tempered only by the corporation's public service remit that means it has to make its services as accessible as possible to the entire country. A good thing, too - the public service remit has led to the UK becoming a leader in digital radio and TV, but with a focus on making sure those poor souls on the wrong side of the digital divide aren't left behind.

But the BBC isn't purely benevolent. It has a strong commercial arm, too - BBC Worldwide, which sells BBC TV shows, from EastEnders to Planet Earth, throughout the world and has no doubt been gagging to sell ads onto the BBC news site.

Well, it looks like BBC Worldwide is going to get its mitts on the BBC iPlayer, too. It's hard to know whether this is a good thing or not.

The original idea behind iPlayer - known during last year's trial as iMP - was to allow viewers to catch up with the last week's BBC TV and radio shows by downloading them from the web or streaming them over iPTV. Now BBC Worldwide head honcho John Smith is inviting rival broadcasters like C4, ITV and Sky to participate in iPlayer, making it an online alternative to the Freeview digital terrestrial platform. So far, so good, but does that mean commercial broadcasters will start charging for the service? Or supporting it through advertising?

More importantly, will they ruin the service with the sort of draconian copy protection that blights the current on-demand services from Channel 4 and Sky (which are so tightly locked down that they won't even allow wireless streaming from PC to set-top box/xbox 360, despite using Windows Media technology that allows this).

Fortunately, one of the findings of the BBC Trust's initial report into iPlayer was that it had to be accessible through different platforms - including Mac and Linux, which currently lack the Windows Media 10 DRM used by C4 and Sky. Let's hope that the BBC can find a less stringent, more open copy protection system that allows wireless streaming and transferring video to portable devices. If it works, it could force iTunes - and, more importantly, the studios and labels backing it - to ditch restrictive, product-specific DRM altogether.