BBC license fee payers who have been waiting for online access to over a million hours of archived BBC content will soon be able to get a taste. The Observer reports that the BBC will begin trial access to the archive with 20,000 users in May, with a full rollout to take place some time in 2008.
The BBC Archive is a big project, and one that has been in the works for some time. We first reported on it nearly four years ago and in September 2003, BBC new media director Ashley Highfield said that the network was considering a P2P solution for distributing archived material.At the time of the announcement, it was hoped that content would become available starting in late 2005.
Unfortunately for those of us living outside of the British Isles, the BBC decided to limit access to those who pay the UK's yearly television license fee, which is the primary source of the BBC's funding.
A mild furor erupted earlier this year when the BBC announced that it was going to rely on Microsoft's DRM for its iPlayer software—used to allow viewers to "catch up" on the last 30 days of programming—which the BBC defended as the next best thing to a nonexistent open DRM standard. The BBC will adopt a platform-agnostic approach within a "reasonable time frame," according to the BBC Trust and has looked for feedback from Mac and Linux users on how best to go about it. It's uncertain whether the BBC will use DRM to limit access to the Archive or whether it will rely on some other solution.
One of the reasons that we haven't seen the Archive yet is the maze of licensing and copyright that must be negotiated. Although the programming was originally aired on the BBC, the broadcaster does not have the right to repeat all of it. As a result, composers, actors, and even news anchors need to give their assent to the material being made available on the BBC Archives.
The Observer details some of the footage that will be available, and it looks like some of it will make for some compelling viewing. There's a 1981 performance of Othello starring Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins, a May 1940 appeal for help evacuating soldiers from Dunkirk from the UK government, and a 1981 interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono televised just two days before the ex-Beatle was murdered. The BBC also plans to make scripts, program notes, and other related material available—assuming it can get permission from the copyright holders.
It's a monumental project, one that is made more difficult by the fact that when much of this programming originally aired, there was no inkling that there would be a way to make episodes of The Frost Report from 1966 available for anyone to view, whenever they wanted.