The BBC’s Distributed DVR Heaven

Imagine a digital video recorder that offers you a few terabytes of hard disk space, automatically recording thousands of shows. Now imagine the same DVR connected to a P2P network of like-minded recording devices, giving you access to virtually any show on television and in turn making The Pirate Bay look like a Blockbuster with empty shelves.

Sounds like crazy talk? Not to Tom Loosemore, who is a senior manager at the BBC’s new media operation. Loosemore spends most of his time future-proofing the BBC’s many web properties, but a few hours of his work week are reserved for creative tinkering. That’s when he comes up with stuff that sounds like every couch potato’s wet dream.

Loosemore recently got invited to present his vision for the future of television at the ETech conference in San Diego. He opened his talk with two messages: TV is great, and it’s completely broken. “TV programs remain a fabulous way to tell stories,” Loosemore told the audience. “But you miss nearly all of it.” The dictate of programming forces us to overlook tons of good shows, and the absence of an accessible archive makes most of them disappear forever.

One obvious solution would be to bring everything online. The BBC tried exactly that with its Creative Archive that was supposed to make large parts of the broadcaster’s back catalog available for download and creative reuse. But that didn’t happen, mostly because of copyright issues. “We couldn’t find a single program that was entirely BBC-owned,” said Loosemore.

As a result the R&D department of the broadcaster shifted focus to DVR-like solutions. A first prototype was developed in cooperation with a company called Promise Ltd. and allowed to simultaneously record 12 channels of Freeview digital video broadcast on 3.2 TB of hard disk memory, giving its users access to every show that aired during the last seven days.

The BBC commissioned a few hundred of these devices and gave them to some presumably very happy employees. One of these boxes ended up in Tom Loosemore’s living room. He still gets excited when he talks about the ability to watch 15,000 shows at any given time. “It was just fantastic.” The device allowed him to literally change channels in the past, flipping from one 8 p.m. recording to the next three hours later, every so often making him lose track of time completely and then stare at the clock in disbelief in the middle of the night.

Then some of the watermarked recordings started appearing online and the BBC shut down the internal test. But Loosemore isn’t about to give up. He’s already working on plans for the the next next generation DVR. This time he wants to have the box record programs from only one channel 24/7 for three entire months. Want to watch something different? Just download it from someone else’s machine through the integrated BitTorrent client. Loosemore is calling this approach “outpirating the pirates”.

So when will UK TV viewers actually get the DVR from heaven? Probably not anytime soon – at least not from the BBC. “We’re not in the business of building boxes,” said Loosemore. His experiments also don’t have any direct impact on other online licensing and distribution deals of the broadcaster, many of which involve digital rights management. The BBC is merely trying to explore ideas for the long term future of the medium. Trying to find out “how to cede control more gracefully,” as he likes to put it. “We don’t want to get caught blindsided.”