Lucy Milburn 28th August 2018
Have you ever searched iPlayer for your favourite show, only to find that the 30-day window is up? Or have you ever taken your laptop on your travels, only to be caught out by the platform’s geo-restrictions?
In the current digital landscape of Netflix, Now TV and Amazon Prime, it’s often said that iPlayer is struggling to compete with its rivals. Our viewing habits have dramatically transformed in recent years and the ability to binge-watch shows has become an expectation. The BBC site still functions primarily as a catch-up facility but most programmes can only be accessed for a month after their first broadcast. While many popular shows have now been licensed to Netflix, it’s often a challenge to (legally) locate those BBC classics.
One of the perks of working for the BBC is access to their best-kept secret: BBC Redux. Produced by the Research and Development arm of the organisation and operating since 2007, the digital back-catalogue is home to over 300,000 shows.
The archive, once fondly described as “iPlayer on steroids”, records the majority of the BBC’s output and access is only possible with a coveted staff account. Just like Chuck Palahniuk’s infamous Fight Club, the first rule of Redux seems to be that you keep it on the down-low. However, you’ll often find a journalist taking to Twitter to offer their soul in exchange for access to the digital gold mine.
The Overtake got the inside scoop from some BBC staffers about the archive, its restricted nature and what it’s like to watch the first ever episodes of Eastenders — anonymously, of course.
A research and development project
According to the BBC’s official spokesperson, Redux “stores web quality BBC transmission material for research purposes”. The archive automatically records all TV and radio output which can then be used by production teams. Instead of dusting off old VHS tapes, staff members can research their stories by accessing old episodes with a couple of clicks.
Although the archive also serves as a “proof of concept” for iPlayer, a BBC staff member emphasises that research is the primary purpose of Redux today.
“I used it particularly for watching appearances by relevant talent on other shows, pre-existing shows about topics I was working on… Occasionally you could use it to check things like the order episodes were aired and stuff like that but it would be fiddly to use it for much more than reviewing shows,” they said.
“The programmes are archived with metadata so there’s a level of granular searching you can do,” another staff member informs us.
A limited privilege
The BBC staff confirm that the archive goes back to the ’70s and ’80s — although the quality of older programmes is questionable.
“I watched stuff from the 1980s on there but that was few and far between — there might have been some older documentaries. It definitely didn’t have everything ever.”
I’ve watched the first Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson is very young and very posh
“Certainly I’ve watched the first ever ‘new’ Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson is very young and very posh, which was good for a laugh.”
With a Redux password, staff can also see the huge stylistic changes to BBC output over the past decades.
“Everything natural history is now geared towards showing everything as huge and epic, and as presenter-free as possible so it can be sold easily worldwide,” a staff member said.
“Back in the day you got to see a lot more presenters on screen and the special effects in explainer animations or title sequences weren’t half as good.
It’s great to watch old episodes of Eastenders, if just to see the haircuts!
“Working in development for TV is all about being literate in formats and the history of the BBC’s output, so it’s a great tool for younger and newer staff to understand what’s come before — there’s no limit in the Redux system that shuts you out from other genres.
“It’s also great to watch old episodes of Eastenders, if just to see the haircuts!”
The temptation to indulge in your staff privileges out-of-hours is always there, but apparently staff are very much discouraged from using it for fun.
The BBC’s official statement points to a “specific criteria” that needs to be met before BBC Staff, Studios and agreed partners can access Redux for “defined periods of time”. It’s not designed to be watched at home with a glass of wine — but that’s not to say staff don’t do that.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched The Terminator when I’ve been away in a hotel
“Access is only through a log in, so clearly someone somewhere can see what we’re viewing,” one of the BBC staff tells us.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t watched Match of the Day before it was available on the iPlayer because I’d run out of room on my Sky box… or watched The Terminator when I’ve been away in a hotel.”
Despite the obvious appeal of unlimited access, poor audio and annoying timestamps compromise many of the shows on Redux.
“It’s been uploaded from master copies on VHS or DV stock with BITC (burned in time codes) on the screen so it wouldn’t be the great quality the BBC have come to stand for with iPlayer.”
Why can’t the public have access?
To give credit where credit is due, the BBC has actively responded to the rising competition from Netflix and Amazon by adding archived footage to iPlayer. In June this year, every episode of Dr Who since its 2005 reboot was added to the platform and several period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice and the original House of Cards, have also made their way on to the site.
Rights, licensing and budget are the main barriers to bringing the BBC’s full archive into the public eye. Recently, Virgin TV customers lost access to channels Dave and Gold in a heated dispute concerning rights and fees.
As a service publicly funded by TV licence fees, iPlayer doesn’t have the economic power of its US rivals which spend billions of dollars on content acquisition.
“Just because the BBC own the rights to a show doesn’t mean they can air it without a financial cost,” a staff member informs us.
“Performers and artists deserve to be paid their royalties for broadcasts. I know there’s a lot of work done to try and get more stuff from the archive on the BBC iPlayer but it has an associated cost with every programme uploaded — they have to make it accessible (add audio description/subtitles), they have to check it to make sure it’s appropriate for certain age groups, make sure it’s good quality sound and picture, and they have to make payments for music, art, performers in everything.”
The quality of a lot of it isn’t brilliant
However, despite enjoying the benefits of Redux, they don’t believe that public access to the archive would necessarily add value to our viewing experience.
“The curatorship of iPlayer is actually pretty valuable and they are expanding their content on there all the time,” they said.
“I’d love them to share more but, honestly, the quality of a lot of it isn’t brilliant — and I wonder if there would be much of a draw.
“If they can make iPlayer global and somehow monetised, I think they could really begin to contend with Netflix… and then there might be a case for getting more of that content up there!”
We live in hope.
Lucy Milburn 28th August 2018