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Sometime this spring, about 5,000 BBC viewers will get the green light to do what triggers lawsuits in other parts of the world: download popular TV shows from their neighbors' computers.
The experiment is called IMP, for Internet media player, and is one of the boldest flirtations with peer-to-peer technology that any television organization has yet attempted. Although its initial version stops short of allowing viewers to swap older shows, the software will let them download and watch current BBC programs for about a week after their air date.
Programming breakthroughs have long been associated with American television, but today, the 83-year-old British broadcasting institution is leading the medium into the future with technology, if not content. "It's obviously something that people want," said Ben Lavender, the head of the IMP project. "Rather than being like King Canute and hoping the water won't come in over our feet, it's better to get out in front."
The BBC decided that it needs to adapt because the explosion in computer and Net technologies is
fundamentally changing the concept of television: TiVo subscribers skip advertising; TV shows are regularly downloaded online; cable networks have decimated network ratings and have already built successful models for on-demand programming.
The trends are equally familiar across the Atlantic. "We're asking ourselves, 'How do we take the best of ABC News content and make it available to anybody, anywhere, on any device?'" ABC News digital-media chief Bernard Gershon said. That has meant getting news clips online and on mobile phones, and launching a 24-hour news service aimed at broadband networks. But the BBC is going further.
Even more ambitious than its peer-to-peer project, the BBC is planning
to open up much of its 600,000-hour video archive online, a treasure trove that could include everything from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" to a documentary on "Tetris." Organizers want to let people download video with few restrictions so that viewers can reuse it in their own creative projects.
Because the "Creative Archive," launching in trial form today, could broadly transform consumers' expectations for media, the BBC is moving slowly before making large amounts of content available. Some shows, for example, might not be archived so that the network's DVD sales would not be diluted.
U.S. broadcasters have balked at the on-demand concept, partly because it would be vastly expensive to offer millions of video downloads directly on the Web. But the BBC's use of peer-to-peer technology could make the idea financially feasible.
"We're hopeful that the archive will be much more than the BBC," said Paula Le Dieu, the project's co-director. "But we are pragmatic. We need to understand the commercial impact it will have."