The BBC has made a promotional video to show how Canvas, the proposed hybrid broadcast and broadband platform that has yet to be approved by the BBC Trust, might be presented to the public. Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology at the BBC, presented the video at a conference organised by Intellect, the consumer electronics industry association. Short on any substantial detail, its consumer-friendly approach raises more questions about the role of the BBC in promoting such a platform.
“Once upon a time if you wanted digital TV you had three choices,” says the video. “You could have a large unattractive satellite dish on your roof, some men in overalls could dig up your road and lay a big cable and pipe it into your house or you could simply buy a handy little box from the shops and plug it into your TV aerial.” So much for platform neutrality. Pay-television operators will no doubt be delighted by the such a presentation.
“If only life was still that simple,” it continues. These days it seems there are “hundreds of companies” offering “digital this,” “on-demand that,” and “catch up the other”.”Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could simplify all this? If someone could combine the plug and go simplicity of Freeview with the choice and convenience of iPlayer all packaged in one simple easy to use service? Well Canvas will do just that. Just plug it into your telly and into your broadband and away you go.”
Canvas is presented as a “TV revolution” and a “a totally personalised TV experience,” apparently “changing the way you watch TV forever”.
It sounds an appealing proposition for consumers, but Canvas seems certain to prompt further concerns from many in the industry, particularly satellite and cable television operators that have already expressed their concerns in the strongest terms.
The Canvas was initially presented to the BBC Trust as “a joint venture that would promote a standards based open environment for internet-connected digital television devices”. Following a public consultation, which prompted questions and concerns from industry stakeholders over lack of detail and transparency, the BBC Trust was obliged to refer the project back to its management for further work.
In its submission, Intellect said of Canvas: “As it is currently described we believe it will damage the existing digital TV market, have a negative impact in the longer term and will not realise the public value benefits that are envisaged.”
It seems clear, as some suspected, that the BBC management sees Canvas not as a set of standards, but as a successor to Freeview. Digital terrestrial television broadcasts really need broadband to deliver on demand services and remain competitive.
“If you look at free-to-air platforms there is not a clear future for them,” the BBC’s controller of future media and technology suggested. The BBC and its partners were working to upgrade Freeview and Freesat with high definition and other services, but he said “innovation in pay-TV is much faster and we think it’s important for subscribers to have an option which is subscription free and has the same sort of features and functionality. We think that by marrying linear television with broadband internet activity you can get there.”
In fact, BT has been providing a hybrid broadcast and broadband platform for a couple of years, known as BT Vision. With less than half a million customers, it has not done as well as they hoped and its chief executive has left in frustration.
The BBC, ITV and BT have meanwhile come up with a plan to create a new platform, or rather a joint venture to promote a “standards based open environment for internet-connected television devices”.
One might imagine that this could be developed through the usual industry bodies as an enhancement to existing specifications based on open standards. Such a process was used to provide digital video recorder support to Freeview in the form of what is now termed Freeview+.
It is not entirely clear why a new joint venture vehicle is required, unless it is simply to exclude Sky, which is a shareholder in Freeview.
Sky is likely to unimpressed by the BBC promoting its proposed platform as an alternative to having “a large unattractive satellite dish on your roof”. It also does little to promote Freesat, the joint venture between the BBC and ITV to promote free-to-air satellite television as an alternative to Sky.
The BBC is obliged by its charter to be platform neutral, but has been accused in the past of promoting digital terrestrial television at the expense of cable and satellite. It seems to see its role as promoting a free alternative to pay-television, even to the exclusion of half of its licence fee payers that have elected to subscribe to cable or satellite services.
The consumer electronics industry is meanwhile already providing devices and displays that connect television and the internet.
There are also other entrants into the market that will hope to deliver their services to a new generation of broadband connected displays.
Erik Huggers spoke of the heritage of the BBC in driving open international standards and suggest that the only way forward was for everyone to get together and push, rather than run with their own ambitions and fragment the market.
That may seem ironic to some in the industry who have complained that the BBC has failed to involve other stakeholders or follow the usual consensus led open standards processes.
It remains to be seen whether manufacturers will be won over by the BBC promoting a particular platform. Those that are already closely involved are quietly supportive. Other leading manufacturers have been very vocal in their criticism.
On the one hand it could help to create common standards and drive consumer demand. On the other hand it could inadvertently delay the emergence of open industry standards, as stakeholders end up arguing over the appropriate approach, appealing to regulators or competition authorities, or ultimately pursuing legal challenges.
In the end, the market may decide, and the United Kingdom is still only a relatively small market for many manufacturers.