Contrary to some reports, the leading pay-television operator in the United Kingdom is still far from persuaded by the arguments that the BBC needs to establish a new television platform to support broadband services. Device and display manufacturers are already enabling hybrid broadcast and broadband delivery. Sky is extending its distribution to different devices, like the Fetch TV proposition from IP Vision, demonstrating that suitable standards and technology exist today.
At a London conference on the Future of Online Media Distribution, the BBC shared a platform with Sky but predictably had different views about the future of television.
Richard Halton, who heads the BBC Canvas camp appears beleaguered by opponents on a number of fronts. “The philosophy behind Canvas is very similar to the philosophy behind Freeview,” he said. “We are trying to sustain that model and protect that idea of an open platform.”
He maintained that there was no particular advantage for the proposed partners in a new joint venture in terms of prominence on the platform and that others would have equivalent access to the platform by analogy to an application store. For those that have observed the benefits that Apple gains from running the iTunes platform, this may have been an unhelpful analogy.
“We’ve done quite a lot of work on audience expectations about television in their living room,” countered Griff Parry, director of on-demand at Sky. “One day you can hypothesise that BBC One will be an app,” was his riposte. “Sky does have reservations about the role of the BBC” which he described as “self-serving” and “market distorting”.
“I’ve tried to make myself feel positively about it,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions for us,” he added. “We have some misgivings about their approach.”
Meanwhile, Sky is pressing ahead with taking its online Sky Player offering to the Xbox, launching on 27 October. “Sky Player is not an on-demand service. It is a television service,” said the Sky representative. “We may stop calling it Sky Player and just call it Sky TV in the end.”
Sky has also announced a distribution deal with IP Vision, as previously reported by informitv, to make its Sky Player offering available on Fetch TV devices. From early 2010, some of the most popular Sky channels, including Sky Sports and Sky Movies, will be available on Fetch TV hybrid broadcast and broadband boxes.
The Freeview+ compatible, high-definition ready, terrestrial tuner and digital video recorder will connect to any broadband network. Existing Sky subscribers will be able to access live and on-demand programming in line with their channel package, while non-subscribers will be able to sign up to packages through a monthly subscription paid directly to Sky.
“Sky is committed to offering customers more ways to access our content and our agreement with IP Vision represents an important step in that process,” said Griff Parry. “It also demonstrates the continued development of innovative IP-enabled video services. As more and more commercial players harness broadband distribution to extend consumer choice, there’s an opportunity for all content owners to reach new audiences. Sky will continue to look to support new, secure delivery platforms as this fast and dynamic sector evolves.”
Sky is expected to announce its own initiative to connect existing satellite set-top boxes to broadband, and would like to see these include video-on-demand programming from the BBC, as currently carried on the Virgin Media cable service. In making its own programming across multiple platforms, Sky is stepping up the pressure on the BBC to do the same, without prerequisites on how it will be presented.
With many television displays already supporting network connections, or connected to other devices that do, it may already be too late for broadcasters like the BBC to determine how people will interact with their televisions. Even powerful platform operators like Sky are losing their control on the viewing experience as different devices and displays connect directly to broadband networks. Sky appears to have recognised that the best response is to ensure consumers can connect to its programming on as many devices as possible.
Tim Page of Sony said the company was “not decided yet” on whether to support the proposed Canvas platform. He indicated that it was more likely to support the HbbTV initiative, which has the backing of some European broadcasters. Some experts have expressed reservations about the suitability of HbbTV, suggesting that it is based on legacy approaches and may face similar problems to other attempts to drive open interactive television standards.
Current Sony screens now have network connections, with features such as DLNA support for the Digital Living Network Alliance standard, which allows users to browse media across a home network. Another feature, known as AppliCast, allows access to web based services such as RSS feeds.
Sony will offer its Bravia internet video service in Europe in 2010. Sony has already signed a deal with channel Five to offer video-on-demand services through compatible connected displays and Blu-ray disc players. Deals with other broadcasters could follow, at which point the argument for a BBC Canvas project to provide an open platform could be either increasingly irrelevant, or even more important, depending on your perspective.
A number of other leading consumer electronics companies with whom informitv has spoken have also privately expressed their reservations about the Canvas project being promoted by the BBC. Their issues are not so much with the consumer premise of the proposition as with the way in which it is being approached by the proposed partners.
It seems that manufacturers are hoping that existing standards activities will lead to an acceptable solution that will support a broader international market. The Digital TV Group industry association is co-ordinating activity in the United Kingdom, which it stresses is business as usual.
The BBC Trust is due to deliver its provisional conclusions on whether the BBC can proceed with its Canvas project sometime in the Autumn, followed by a further four week public consultation, after which it will publish its final decision.