The BBC has revealed more detailed plans for its proposed joint venture with ITV and BT. It is now clear that what is envisaged is a platform, rather than simply a set of standards, to support programmes delivered over both broadcast and broadband networks. The BBC Trust has published further information from its management in response to industry concerns over an alarming lack of detail in its previous proposals. Some issues have been addressed, such offering to work with industry bodies such as the Digital Television Group to establish relevant standards. Yet the astonishing scale of ambition raises as many new questions as it answers.
The BBC Trust has published more detailed proposals from its executive, responding to the questions it has posed in response to issues raised by a wide range of industry stakeholders. The result is a strange dualism by which the governing body asks some searching questions of its executive mind. The body suspects that the mind may have been up to no good, but the mind responds by suggesting that it was thinking something quite different all along or by simply avoiding the question.
Indeed, it seems that the carefully considered and composed responses have been provided by a different team than the authors of the original rather sketchy proposals. One suspects that consultants and possibly lawyers may have been involved. The result is a rather more coherent and plausible proposal that carefully addresses many concerns, while equally carefully avoiding some difficult issues.
There is much that will placate critics, not least some assurance that the BBC will work with industry bodies such as the Digital Television Group, the European Broadcasting Union and the Open IPTV Forum in defining appropriate standards.
There is also much new detail of the constitution of the proposed joint venture that the BBC is seeking to form, although the rationale behind it remains rather unclear.
What is almost entirely absent is any technical detail or discussion of relevant technologies or standards.
While it provides more information on issues that were previously glossed over, the more detailed proposals do not adequately address the key questions that the BBC Trust should have asked, but apparently ignored. Why is the BBC seeking to establish a new platform in a joint venture with commercial partners? What public purpose or value is the BBC achieving in so doing that could not be addressed either by existing structures, standards processes or the market in general?
As a result, the BBC management attempts to describe, with little persuasive detail, “how Canvas devices will support a wide range of monetisation options, including targeted advertising, micropayments and subscription and how these will be supported, including the approach to conditional access, digital rights management and billing”.
In so doing, Canvas attempts to address many of the most problematic issues that are faced by the converging media and communications industries. Most of these have been inadequately resolved in over a decade. They remain a work in progress even for the most successful pay-television platform operators in the world. The BBC and its partners propose to sort them out sometime in the next year, ready to launch in time for Christmas 2010.
The plausible management consultancy speak suggests this is possible, but industry experts may have their doubts. Those that may be motivated to frustrate or delay the process for their own competitive reasons will no doubt have a field day.
The problem is that that the aspirations behind the proposals may be entirely reasonable. As far as the consumer is concerned, what is not to like? The idea of a box that combines broadcast and broadband delivered programmes with an elegant and intuitive interface is intrinsically attractive. Yet it is not something that the market is unable to deliver. BT Vision offers such solution, powered by Microsoft Mediaroom. The Fetch TV box that went on sale in the shops just this week offers a retail alternative.
The argument is that public service broadcasters can help establish a de facto standard that will offer a free-to-air alternative to pay-television platforms. That argument is rather undermined by addressing the different revenue raising mechanisms that will be necessary to maintain the future viability of commercial television.
The BBC undoubtedly has a role to play in attempting to establish technical transmission standards. It is less clear that it should be involved in designing the user experience of receivers.
The real question for the BBC Trust to ask would be what in its Charter and Agreement provides the remit or the mandate for the BBC to be involved in the development of such a platform as now proposed in Canvas? Anyone with a good answer should contact the BBC Trust, which is now inviting comments, in preparation for a further consultation in the autumn.