It’s okay, Sherlock’s finished now. It’s safe to come back on the internet again.
The whole of the UK crowded around the television set at 8:30pm Sunday night to watch the finale of the contemporised sleuth’s current run.
Not since that final episode of To the Manor Born or that time when Paul Gascoigne cried during a world cup semi-final has the whole of the nation watched ‘event television’ in such a shared manner.
Except we didn’t. We don’t have to do that anymore. Watching a regular television programme at a set time every week just doesn’t suit most of our lifestyles.
It doesn’t fit mine. I didn’t watch Sherlock on Sunday night, I missed the first 10 minutes, and rather than wade in blindly to the plot as I may have done seven years ago, I’ll wait and watch the whole thing tonight on iPlayer. Why make an already convoluted narrative even more impenetrable by missing some of it?
Even if this ‘television on demand’ lifestyle isn’t needed by some people, it has certainly become a handy option. The rise of the streaming television site has also made redundant certain other habits and technologies.
When was the last time you recorded something off the television using a VCR? Do you even still own a VCR? If you don’t already have TiVo or Sky+, chances are that hard-disk recorder you bought years ago is gathering dust because the internet enabled television you bought even more recently has rendered it pointless.
The BBC iPlayer was launched in 2007 and the other terrestrial channels launched similar services as the iPlayer’s popularity grew. Channel 5 launched Demand 5 in June 2008 and ITV launched ITV Player six months later. Before all of these however was Channel 4, with its launch of 4oD in November 2006.
In 2014 there has never been so many options for the viewer in terms of what to watch, when to watch it and what to watch it on. It’s a golden age of television that no amount of TOWIE can tarnish.
Let’s take a look at the major players and ascertain which one provides the best user experience and whether any improvements can be made in certain areas.
The BBC iPlayer has recently been voted the number one UK buzz brand of 2013 and it’s not difficult to see why it holds such positive regard.
The iPlayer homepage is a comprehensively organised experience.
The most popular recent programmes are featured at the top. At the bottom left there’s a list of available BBC channels, with the last four days worth of programming available to access via a scrollable menu on the homepage.
Particularly of note here is the ability to ‘Watch Live’ the currently broadcasted programme and the ability to see the rest of the day’s schedule and whether these programmes will be available later on the iPlayer or not.
Not long to wait now for Bargain Hunt, thankfully.
Clicking on the ‘Most Popular’ tab reveals a manually skippable carousel that offers 15 programmes per slide.
There’s also the option to look through categories on the homepage, as well as access to an A-Z list of available programmes.
There is very little content on the iPlayer that can’t be accessed from the homepage, it’s designed to be as detailed as possible with very little ‘digging’ needed to find what the user wants to see.
The user only has seven days to watch any given programme on the iPlayer. However it is made clear how long you have left to watch the show on the programme page.
The more popular programmes do seem to have an extended run though. Episode one of Sherlock series three for instance won’t vanish until three weeks after its initial broadcast.
Just to be even more generous, if seven days aren’t enough (surprisingly it often isn’t) BBC iPlayer gives you the option to download any programme using the desktop version of iPlayer, where you have 30 days available to view the programme.
A handy interface provides a programme list and tells you immediately how long you have left to watch each one.
The limitations of this are device based. This is specifically only available to desktop users, so streaming for seven days is still the only option if you’re watching on a tablet or a set-top box.
The individual programme page is fairly minimalist.
A simple play button resides on the main image. Further episodes from the series are accessible from below, there’s also a link to a specially produced mini-episode that I didn’t know existed until accessing this page.
I would suggest that the ‘available until’ date, which is hidden underneath the ‘More programme information’ tab, should be clearer on the programme page itself, along with the running time and access to the audio described version. All three of these things are important to the user and should be better signposted.
Watching the programme itself is a joy. I experienced minimal load time, even when expanding to full screen. Pause and skipping forward and backward throughout the programme is as straightforward as a YouTube video. There’s also easy access to subtitles and volume via the view screen.
The option to switch to HD takes you to the exact point you were watching it in standard definition and vice-versa. Again the load-time was good, but this will of course depend on your own broadband provider.
The ultimate win that iPlayer has over its rivals is its lack of advertising. Sure it’s a service funded by the licence fee, so technically we do pay a premium for it, but as far as user experience goes surely iPlayer will always have the upper hand?
Let’s take a look at the rest and see if their respective advertising models ruins the experience for them.
I don’t know what I find more off-putting, the Andrex Washlets sponsorship ads or Piers Morgan’s face, but this probably isn’t the time to discuss such things.
What I can criticise though is the carousel sat at top of the screen, which assaults you with unpleasantly bulging images at such a frantic pace that you won’t be able to consider any option in a thoughtful manner. Maybe that’s the point.
Comparing this homepage to iPlayer reveals the strength of iPlayer. The ITV Player may have a cleaner layout, but perhaps only having 10 programme options above the fold reveals a dearth of available content.
The most helpful function of a TV streaming website is the channels and days search box.
This is hidden below the fold. It also doesn’t show you what’s coming soon for the rest of today, which is a neat alternative TV guide on the iPlayer. It does however present you with access to all seven days worth of programming from the homepage.
In other respects the ITV Player is better than the BBC iPlayer. You have 30 days to watch a programme, without the need to download it to your desktop via a separate app. It also clearly states how long you have left to watch it on the play button itself.
Remaining available episodes from the series are listed beneath and durations are clearly stated.
Clicking on play reveals this however…
Ant & Dec demanding I sign up first. I didn’t have to do that with the iPlayer.
As soon as I’m registered and now ready to watch Jonathan Ross’s deeply insightful interview of Torvill and Dean, I have to jump through this hoop…
And this one.
By now I have to ask myself whether it’s worth going through all this rigmarole just to watch Jonathan Ross interviewing Torvill and Dean. I think I knew the answer before I started this.
Once I’m finally through, the question of advertising presents itself.
The video begins with two unskippable adverts.
As you can see from the timeline, ITV Player makes it clear where the remaining advert breaks will appear. Bear in mind this is a 60-minute programme.
Loading time is minimal and subtitles are accessed from the screen, along with a full-screen option and volume.
You can skip to any moment during that first segment, before the first advert break which shows the user three ads. However if you want to skip much further ahead, to a point beyond one of the advert break checkpoints, you will then be made to watch the three or four adverts you missed at that point.
If you ‘need’ to watch the last five minutes of Downton Abbey, you have to watch the initial couple of adverts upon loading up the programme then you have to watch five more minutes of adverts from the final ad break you skipped.
Of course ITV has to make money from adverts, but surely there needs to be a line drawn here between revenue and user experience. Here’s Graham Charlton’s article on how too many ads are spoiling the ITV Player.
ITV also offers a rentable library of programmes from its broadcast history. Something the iPlayer certainly lacks, perhaps due to the BBC’s proficient DVD releasing strategy.
Here you can watch episodes of Boon for 49p.
It’s not the most comprehensive library, but there are some interesting oddities that perhaps aren’t available elsewhere. Two seasons of ‘Tales From the Unexpected’ for instance. The pricing structure seems to have an element of common sense too. 99p for newer episodes, 49p for older programmes.
However I’m fairly sure there’s a terrestrial channel offering an even more comprehensive library of past programming for free?
Channel 4’s on demand service 4oD, which appeared before any of the others, offers full and free access to many years worth of programming via the Collections or A-Z tabs.
Sure it’s not much to look at, but full marks for content. I’ll see you in a few hours once I’ve watched 22 episodes of Adam and Joe in a row.
Oh wait, I have to sign-in first.
Thankfully it’s just a single web-page and requires a minimal amount of personal information.
On the programme page itself you’ll find all the buttons you’ve come to expect from the other players, subtitles, volume, full screen, with access to further episodes below the fold.
In terms of advertising, you have to sit through one advert at the beginning, with a timer at the bottom of the screen helpfully informing you exactly how much longer you have to go before the programme starts.
If you want to skip further ahead in the timeline, you have to watch the advert break you missed, much like the ITV Player. The advert break lasts for approximately two minutes and again the timer bar at the bottom is a helpful touch.
In a 60-minute programme, there are as many advert breaks on 4oD as there are on the ITV Player and again you have to watch the initial break first before you skip to any given point of the episode. If that point is past another ad break, you have to watch those adverts too.
It’s a frustrating experience and just feels like I’m flushing time down the toilet.
4oD also has the misfortune of having this headache inducing experience for a homepage.
The carousel has far too much information per slide. Don’t show me three programmes that I can barely guess the theme of, show me one strong image with a clear link.
Below the fold, highlighted programmes are shown in a rather scattershot manner, with little logic or sense of attractive presentation.
The option to select programmes by channel is above the main header.
There is no ability to search by channel and day anywhere on the homepage, a feature I feel is vital to the usability of a television streaming site. Instead it’s accessed through the Catch Up tab.
Here you have to scroll all the way down the page to access all the channels on offer, rather than clicking a tab in a handy widget that takes you through both calendar and channel options.
To its credit, 4oD offers 30 days for its catch-up service, seems to bombard you with slightly fewer adverts than ITV Player and offers a vast amount of past programming completely free, therefore rendering half my comedy DVD collection redundant.
Channel 5’s streaming service is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t have the multiple channels that other broadcasters have to deal with, therefore has less programming to manage.
I’m not entirely sure what’s being highlighted on this page though, other than a preponderance of soaps and reality TV. It stands in its favour that, although the programming isn’t appealing to me personally, I’m not being assaulted with it through clashing colours and frenetic movement. Programmes are merely segmented by A-Z or genre.
On the programme page, it tells you how long the episode is available for, its duration and access to further episodes is available below.
Episodes are available for 30 days on Demand 5 and pleasingly there is no sign-up.
In terms of advertising, you are submitted to a full two minutes of adverts before the start of the programme. According to the timeline, once the programme has started there will be two further breaks to come. Home and Away is only 20 minutes long, so this seems quite unfair.
However, if I skip past an ad break checkpoint, the programme just plays as normal from that point without another set of adverts interrupting my viewing pleasure. In fact when just watching an episode straight through, the ad breaks that you expect from the timeline indicators don’t appear at all. After the first two minutes of unskippable adverts, that’s it for the entire episode. The same is true for longer episodes.
If you leave a programme and return to it later, the episode will play from that point, however you will have to watch an ad break the next time the timeline crosses an indicator.
What Demand 5 lacks in depth of programming it makes up for in user experience. Perhaps it is worth getting into Celebrity Big Brother after all.
In terms of content it’s just about worth putting up with poor aesthetic design to access 4oD’s vast amount of brilliant programming. It’s a different story for ITV Player though, which is damned for having the same painful advertising model as 4oD and a distinct lack of quality content.
Perhaps they both could learn from Demand 5’s much less infuriating advertising model.