Wednesday, October 24, 2007

4oD, iPlayer and a temporary resurrection of Dennis Potter

Chanel 4's 4oD logo

I noticed recently that 4oD has opened up some of the Channel 4 archive as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. So oft remembered but never repeated dramas along with old series of Grand Designs are available to download and enjoy for free.

For the discerning AiB reader who is less glued to the interweb, 4oD is Channel 4’s on-demand service that allows you to download C4, E4, Film4, AnythingElseEndingIn4 TV shows to your PC (got to be Windows XP or Vista) and watch at your leisure.

In general, you’ve 30 days to watch what you’ve downloaded, and 48 hours to complete watching programmes once you start watching them for the first time.

Technically, 4oD uses the same Kontiki peer-to-peer (P2P) software as BBC's iPlayer, meaning that while you have a show downloaded your PC may be used to send parts of it to other users downloading the same programme. Spreads out the bandwidth across the 4oD users and reduces the load on Channel 4’s servers ... but does have some implications if your ISP limits the uploads you make in a month.

4oD is also available as a catch-up service on Virgin Media, BT Vision and Tiscali IPTV platforms.

image (c) BBC

Knowing that he was dying from pancreatic cancer, Dennis Potter wrote two four-part dramas, asking that they be co-produced by BBC and Channel 4. In 1996, nearly two years after his death, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus were aired.

Feeld's cryogenically preserved head - from Muli Koppel's Flickr account

Karaoke told the tale of a dying writer, Daniel Feeld, and was as odd as anything Potter had previously written despite its touching parallels with Potter’s final weeks. In contrast, Cold Lazarus was quite breathtaking in its vision of the future, where Feeld’s cryogenically preserved head is leaking out its four hundred year old memories. Few who watched it will forget the RONs (Reality or Nothing) - a luddite resistance movement who want to destroy the virtual reality in which society now exists and go back to physical idealism.

Cover of Dennis Potter TV drama transcripts - Karaoke and Cold Lazarus

A consequence of the unique co-production (both dramas aired on both channels, shown first on a Sunday night on one, and repeated the following evening on the other) is that unclear rights issues have prevented the series being released on DVD or repeated on TV. While not the faint-hearted, it’s a rare opportunity to watch them for free on 4oD. (The screenplay is still available on Amazon too.)

Being last broadcast in 1996, it probably shouldn’t surprise me that there are practically no still images from either drama available on line. Otherwise, this article might be better illustrated!
BBC iPlayer Beta logo

While we’re on the subject of on-demand TV, it’s also been announced that iPlayer (BBC’s on-demand catch-up service) will be introducing a streamed version (using Adobe Flash) as part of the official consumer launch of iPlayer at Christmas, allowing Mac and Linux users access to iPlayer’s catalogue of shows for the first time.

Nothing to stop PC users streaming either ... though I wonder if the streamed content will be poorer quality than the download service due to bandwidth and time constraints. Whereas the download service allows for convenient viewing offline on a train or plane, streaming has the downside of having to be online to watch the content (unless there’s some clever caching system).

It’s not yet clear whether streaming is an interim step before ultimately introducing the full-download service across multiple operating systems when the cross-platform DRM issues are sorted out, or whether this will be as good as it gets for the non-Windows community. The Guardian reports:

Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of future media and technology, said that there was a “cost per person reach” factor that meant that it was “too early to make the call” on when to develop a download service.

And iPlayer’s streaming service will also be available for free at The Cloud’s wifi hotspots. Ashley Highfield described the partnership with The Cloud as

“... furthering the BBC's commitment to make its content as widely available as possible to our audiences wherever they are.”

(Acknowledgement: Photo of Feeld's preserved head from Muli Koppel's Flickr account.)


Cosmo said...


Sorry this is a little unrelated to your post, but you obviously know a thing or two about computers, so I hope you don't mind me asking for some help.

I've recently upgraded to Vista (from 98SE!), but now my video clips (.mpeg and .avi) wont play in Windows Media Player.

Any suggestions or experience of similar problems?

Thanks so much!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

No expert in this stuff ... but sounds like you're missing the codec that can decode the video files.

Different video files are coded using different algorithms, even though they share the same file extension. One of the most common non-standard ones is DivX - not sure of WMP supports this built in yet - or whether you need to download the codec for it.

If you get an error message from WMP when it fails to recognise/play the file, then try Googling for it.

Also, a Google for something like "video codecs" may point you to available resources.

There are also freeware applications that will inspect video files and tell you the name of the codec required ... Google is your friend. (Your virus checker is your best friend if you download anything!)

Cosmo said...

Thanks for your help. No sucsess yet using DivX. I'll keep searching and trying.

The most anoying thing is that these videos worked on an older version (and computer)!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the article Alan. I don’t see 4oD coming to my country anytime soon. However, there are plenty of workarounds available to access it here in my country. Personally, I use UnoTelly for more than a year and I can access 4oD like I am in UK.