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Seven tips for using BBC iPlayer

Rebecca Elliott / 20 January 2021 ( 06 April 2021 )

The BBC's catch-up service has come on leaps and bounds since first launching in 2007. Find out how to use the BBC iPlayer so you never miss your favourite programme again.

BBC iPlayer app on phone screen
Dig a little deeper into BBC iPlayer, and there’s a range of features and neat extras. Image: K303/Shutterstock.com

Since it first launched in 2007 - a good five years before Netflix arrived in the UK, BBC iPlayer has transformed how we watch BBC TV shows, allowing you to watch what you want, when you want, and making 'catch up TV' and 'TV on demand' household concepts.

These days, in a world filled with established streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime and newer arrivals like Disney+ and BritBox, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the humble iPlayer, so if you find you aren't checking it as regularly as other streaming platforms you could be missing out on some quality film and TV.

Dig a little deeper into BBC iPlayer, and there’s a range of features and neat extras that make catching up on BBC TV shows even more enjoyable. Read on to find out how to use iPlayer and get the most out of it.

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1. Use BBC iPlayer without an internet connection

Rather than watch iPlayer on your web browser, download the free BBC iPlayer Downloads app to your desktop PC, laptop, mobile phone or tablet. This lets you download TV shows and watch them whenever you want within 30 days. 

This means you can watch downloaded BBC shows without an internet connection – handy if you’re travelling with your laptop or tablet and you need to save data. On phones, before downloading go to the settings icon (the cog) and make sure 'download over mobile network' is not ticked. In the same section you also have the option to download larger, better quality video files.

BBC iPlayer Downloads is a section of the app where your downloads are stored ready for you to watch them, even if you're offline. Access your downloads by going to the menu and selecting the 'Downloads' icon, which has an image of an arrow.

Downloading also helps if you don't have enough bandwidth during busy times of the day. If you live in a household with a lot of streaming or video calls going on you could download what you want during a quiet time of day (or night) to watch at your leisure when struggling with bandwidth. This should also iron out issues with buffering, where the programme keeps stopping and starting as it struggles to load.

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2. Get personalised iPlayer recommendations

Signing in to the iPlayer with a username and password unlocks a range of useful features that tailors iPlayer to suit your own viewing preferences. 

Once signed in, it will recommend TV shows based on what you’ve viewed in the past and send you an email newsletter highlighting new shows to discover. It'll also show you where you left off in a series or film you were watching and allow you to create your own watchlist. 

Under 'My Programmes' on the menu you will see two sections - one for 'Watching' and one for 'Added'. You can resume programmes you are halfway through, watch the next episode of a series you're enjoying, or swipe to 'Added' for your watchlist.

What is catch-up TV and how does it work?

3. Watch live TV on the iPlayer

You can enjoy BBC programming live through the iPlayer app. Navigate to the 'TV Guide' in the menu for an interactive guide that lets you easily swipe through the different BBC channels, including BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four as well as the regional channels such as BBC Scotland and BBC Alba. Underneath the channel name you can see options for today, yesterday, tomorrow and surrounding dates. It should automatically be set to 'today' when you first go onto it. 

From here you can see what has been on recently, what's on right now and what's coming up. Past programming will be available to watch on catch-up, while future programming will be greyed out unless it is a repeat. At the very top you should see what is playing live on any given BBC channel, and there will be a 'Live' icon in the corner to distinguish it.

You can't download live streaming programmes, so if you want to save data you'll need to wait for it to finish and go onto catch up before downloading on an internet connection.

Missed the start? No problem, when you select the programme that's currently streaming you'll have the option to watch it from the start by clicking the 'restart programme' buttons that pops up.

4. Get nostalgic with some classics

It's not just new programming that is available to watch on the iPlayer - the BBC's streaming platform also includes a host of classic cinema and BBC programming from the archives.

Want to get nostalgic with archival cookery shows, such as 1978's Delia Smith's Cookery Course or 1987's Floyd on France? Or how about seeing David Attenborough in his early years on the BBC in 1961's Zoo Quest? Go to the 'From the Archives' section and browse a huge range of content, with newer titles such as Gavin and Stacey and Luther rubbing shoulders with classics including Blackadder and Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days and many more, all split into categories by genre or decade.

And it's not just TV either, the iPlayer includes plenty of classic cinema that's available year-round - time to revisit some silver screen favourites, including Citizen Kane, The Thing from Another World, Bringing Up Baby and many others.

5. Don't miss your favourite BBC series

Make sure you never miss an episode of a TV series with iPlayer’s Series Record.  

When downloading a programme, click the 'Settings' menu in the top-right corner of the app window. From the dropdown menu, click 'Series Record' and then 'On'. Now every episode of the show will be automatically downloaded to your computer as soon as it’s available, meaning you never have to miss a new episode or unexpected Christmas special.

The downloaded episodes have the same lifespan as iPlayer programming so do be aware that if you don't check your downloads very often you could still end up missing something.

Downloading won't be available when watching on a browser or a device with no hard drive. On a laptop you'll need to make sure you have the BBC iPlayer Downloads app.

6. Watch on any device, anywhere you want

As long as you’ve got a decent internet connection, you can watch BBC TV shows on devices such as iPhones and other smartphones, iPads and other tablets, laptops and desktop computers, as well as games consoles and set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and Freesat. 

Your programmes will be available on all devices when logged in, so you're free to pause an episode on your phone and continue on your TV, laptop or tablet.

What's more, thanks to the download options available (see above) you can download what you want before setting off on holiday or a journey. If you're planning a long commute or you're going to be on a camper van or camping holiday, or you're about to move house and will have a few days with no internet available, download a few films or series onto your iPad or laptop to keep you occupied. this is particularly handy if you're looking after children as you can visit the CBBC or CBbeebies section and stock up on some Horrible Histories or Mister Maker.

7. Enjoy radio and podcasts with BBC Sounds

It used to be that iPlayer included radio as standard, but as the platform has grown over the years and expanded its film and TV selection to compete with its rivals the radio functionality of the iPlayer has been split off into its own app, BBC Sounds.

BBC Sounds lets you listen to live BBC radio on the move or at home, with the different stations available to flick between on the homepage. Scroll down on the homepage to get to the different categories for music and speech (podcasts and talk radio) - they won't all be visible at once but you should be able to select 'All Categories' to get to the full range of options. Even within those options you'll find more sub categories, for example click on 'Comedy' and you can then drill down to 'Sketch', 'Satire', 'Sitcoms', 'Spoof' and more.

The BBC has a extensive library of classic radio programmes, including comedy radio classics old and new such as vintage Hancock’s Half Hour and more recent Flight of the Conchords and The Mighty Boosh, plus shows such as Book At Bedtime and Desert Island Discs. In fact the BBC says they have over 80,000 hours of radio, audiobooks and podcasts - so there's definitely no risk of running out of content any time soon.

From factual and news to drama and comedy, there’s something for everyone. Podcasts don’t have an expiry date, so you can enjoy them at your own pace.

As well as live radio you can click on 'Music' in the menu to find themed compilations, mix tapes and soundtracks. you can listen to radio shows you've missed by clicking on 'Stations & Schedules' on the front page, which will take to an interactive radio guide that works in the same way as the iPlayer's TV guide - click on missed shows for a catch-up version, the current time for what's broadcasting now (again, highlighted with a 'live' icon) or look ahead to see what is coming up.

As with the iPlayer, you can download radio programmes and podcasts so you can listen to them later even without an internet connection. These can be found in the 'My sounds' section, a personalised part of the app for your downloads, subscribed programmes and bookmarks.

There's no watch list as such, but even vintage programming can be subscribed to and added to your 'Subscribed' list, and individual episodes you want to revisit can be bookmarked and accessed via the 'Bookmarks' section.

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iPlayer FAQ

There's no such thing as a stupid question, so we've sorted through some of the most frequently asked questions about the BBC's catch-up service to help you get to grips with it.

What is iPlayer?

The iPlayer is the BBC's streaming service that was launched on Christmas Day in 2007. It's an easy way to catch-up on television shows you've missed. It is available as a website or an app for phones, tablets, smart TVs and other devices.

How much data does the iPlayer use? 

The iPlayer uses about 255mbs of data an hour, so around four hours of footage will use up 1GB of data. Downloading over a broadband connection before watching will help if you're trying to conserve your mobile data.

Is the iPlayer free?

It's free to download the iPlayer app but if you want to watch streamed live TV you need a TV licence.

What's on BBC iPlayer?

The iPlayer includes recently broadcast films and television programmes, as well as box sets of classic programmes. You can browse through categories including Comedy, Food, History, Lifestyle, Music and many more.

How can you watch iPlayer on a TV?

The iPlayer works as an app so needs to be downloaded onto a device such as a smart TV, games console or digi box. Set-top boxes such as Sky and Virgin Media will also play it. If you don't have any set-top boxes or a smart TV the easiest and cheapest way would be to buy a low-cost streaming box, such as a Roku, Chromecast or Amazon Firestick which plugs into your TV (check connections available on your TV before buying). These retail for around £30.

If you need to find out how to use iPlayer on TV but no longer have the instructions for getting your smart TV to work you should be able to find them on the manufacturer's website.

How do you get subtitles on the iPlayer?

All you need to do to switch on subtitles is start playing the programme you want and click the 'S' icon at the bottom of the screen, next to the playtime. The button is only visible when you hover your mouse or finger over the screen. With programming broadcast live there might be a slight delay in the subtitles appearing as they would have been generated in real time as it was being broadcast.

Can you watch signed programmes?

Yes, you can watch television programmes with sign language. In the genre menu 'Signed' will be an option, so click on it to find what is available signed.

Are audio descriptions for the blind available?

As with signed programming, television shows with audio descriptions sit in their own category on the menu. Scroll along until you see 'Audio Described' to see what is available.

For more on the BBC iPlayer's accessibility see their website.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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