The ABC’s bold new venture into internet TV has launched in beta test mode. Technically it works just fine. But, disappointingly, ABC Playback seems more like the last gasp of old-style broadcast TV than a prelude to something new and wonderful.

Their highly-compressed Flash streaming video is also a big step behind what Norway and Canada’s broadcasters are trialling: full HD TV distribution over BitTorrent.

I’ll gloss over ABC Playback’s geeky details because the massively-brained Simon Rumble has already done a technical reconnaissance. From a service viewpoint, we’re offered three channels — though “channel” is a curious word in this context, since they’re just menu items.

  1. ABC CatchUp has a selection of programs from ABC1 and ABC2 available for a week after their original broadcast. Right now that selection is limited: The Bill (inevitable, I guess), games review program Good Game, At The Movies, The New Inventors and How Art Made The World.
  2. ABC Real is archived “factual and documentary” material — currently only the S-x in the Bush series about Aussie fauna on the bonk and the “magnificent documentary” The Kimberley: Land of the Wandjina.
  3. ABC Shop is just “previews” (ie advertising) for DVDs you can buy. I shall not mention it again.

I’m guessing the programs were chosen to be “representative”. I can almost hear the dialogue: “Well, The Bill is popular, we’d better have that, and David and Margaret too. Better have something for young people, what about Good Game? Oh, and something arty…” But why not The 7.30 Report and Lateline and all the other programs which are already encoded for internet download?

Tying the catch-up to broadcast schedules seems old-fashioned — especially since you can’t save things for later.

Only episode 2 of How Art Made The World was available and, because it was originally screened last Tuesday, it’s only available for another day. Who wants to start from episode 2? I have to watch episode 2 this week. I have to watch episode 3 next week. Why can’t I just spend a quiet evening watching the entire series? After all, it’s already been paid for, so the ABC’s aim should be to increase the audience, not put blocks in the way.

Increasingly, people watch media where they want to watch it — in a proprietary system like iTunes or Windows Media Player, or an open system like Miro TV. They expect to be able to use the media aggregator of their choice, to compile playlists of material from any source, and consume it when they want.

In this respect, ABC Playback is a backwards step. It can’t be integrated with an existing media-consumption framework (unless someone hacks it), the playlists can contain only the ABC programs on offer, and things disappear according to arbitrary rules.

You can’t schedule downloads to happen late at night during an ISP’s off-peak time. And there are no RSS feeds — again, you have to go to the special website and log in just to see if there’s anything new. Wrong.

I do understand this is a trial. I do understand there might be copyright or other restrictions — but they’re not my problems. This is precisely the old-medium thinking that needs to be overcome.

Delivering broadcast-quality video over the Internet isn’t rocket science. It’s just storage space and bandwidth — routine engineering problems. And it’s easy if you use BitTorrent.

While the music and movie companies and, presumably, Melbourne criminal defence lawyers rail against BitTorrent, Norway’s NRK have already used it to distribute a HD TV program to 80,000 viewers for just US$350 in storage and bandwidth charges. Project manager Eirik Solheim reckons the bill would have been US$8,000 had they used traditional web servers.

Inspired by that success, the CBC released a prime-time episode of Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister onto the torrent globally. “The show will be completely free (and legal) for you to download, share & burn to your heart’s desire,” says their media release.

“Rights are hands down the number one challenge to getting traditional TV online,” says CBC Interactive Producer Guinevere Orvis. “It’s also not an unreasonable request for content producers to demand rights to work they made, it can just be a very difficult process to get them all… think dribbling a football type difficult.”

Orvis reckons — quite rightly — that there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking about digital distribution before all of the stakeholders realise it’s a good idea.

“That’s one of the reasons that our experiment is so important,” Orvis says. “As a public broadcaster, our mandate [content is] to ‘be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means’ really helped the cause.”

Maybe the ABC’s Charter, with its repeated use of the word “broadcast”, is holding it back. “Broadcast” still has that sense of “we spend millions of dollars making packaged entities called ‘programs’ which we then transmit at you”.

What the ABC needs to address is how it delivers its Charter obligations to “contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community” in the new age of the internet.

What is the ABC’s role when everybody who isn’t totally poverty-stricken has a computer or telephone with a camera, a microphone and editing tools? When they all have access to free video broadcast services with live-chat talkback like Ustream  or Yahoo! Live? When talking about “national identity” is no longer the purview of a professional media class?

Stilgherrian blogs at stilgherrian.com.

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