The Canvas project, now branded YouView, has come in for a lot of criticism over the last few months — some of it deserving and some of it self-serving. As Nigel Walley of informitv partners Decipher writes, few people seem to be looking at YouView from the point of view of the consumer, who is already struggling to make sense of an increasingly confused television market.

“When the first principles of Project Canvas were laid out in 2007, it was true that ‘the market had failed to provide a solution for TV VOD’ — there was no television video-on-demand service for those customers who did not want to pay a subscription, and there were no announced plans for future products.

However, the Canvas project has been tortuously slow and since 2007 the world has changed. By the time YouView launches in mid-2011 it will be just another product in an over-supplied market for video-on-demand devices serving the non-subscription ‘free TV’ market.

There are already seven or eight products on sale in the United Kingdom that can deliver a specially-designed, big screen television version of the BBC iPlayer, including some Freeview and Freesat boxes. That is not market failure.

The connected device consumer electronics manufacturers are also delivering TV VOD. Every new Sony Bravia television screen and Blu-ray disk player has iPlayer and YouTube built in and it is likely that the same will also be true for every Samsung, LG and Panasonic device. On top of that, every PS3 ever sold in UK can already access iPlayer. Before Christmas, many of these same boxes will also have access to a big screen ITV Player, Demand Five and LoveFilm.

Not only do all these innovations give a lie to the canard repeated by the consortium members that ‘Canvas will deliver VOD into the free market’ but they will actually compete against YouView and make its success even harder to achieve. All this has occurred before the launch of another, even scarier competitor, Google TV.

With all these innovations, it is not inconceivable that there will be over a million devices with free TV VOD in the market before YouView launches. YouView can only justify itself, and survive commercially, if it delivers something significantly different and compelling into a market already oversupplied with TV VOD services.

The idea that Canvas would provide a broadcast-centric way of presenting VOD was based on the notion that ‘the platform is designed and owned by companies that understand content’. It spoke of a service in which the needs and interests of the free-to-air channels and their brands would be brought to the fore. This would benefit the broadcasters and provide clarity for the consumers who recognised and understood those brands. This is where the consortium has been in greatest danger of failing the consumer.

At the outset, the Canvas project was put into the hands of many of the teams who had launched PC VOD ‘players’ for the broadcasters. These were people who had built different and competitive brands to the broadcast brands that Canvas was meant to protect, like iPlayer, ITV NetPlayer, or 4OD Player. It seems that in the early days of the project, these teams were more interested in solving how to put their player brands onto TV, than working out how to use VOD to build strong broadcast brands.

In this model, a consumer looking for catch-up Eastenders or Coronation Street would use a YouView branded programme guide to access an iPlayer or ITV NetPlayer branded service to find a programme originally delivered by Freeview. Beyond seven days after transmission they would be directed to SeeSaw.

Each video-on-demand team was responsible for designing their own areas and menu structures for their own players. Given that YouView is already an unnecessary extra brand in a market struggling to understand Freeview, Freesat, Seesaw, Fetch and 3View, the result would have been a cacophony of conflicting brands and designs. Most importantly it would have represented a failure of the consortium’s responsibility to deliver against the second promise to the consumer — a simple, broadcast-centric outcome.

Now it must be said that YouView is likely to be the only player in the short term with catch-up content from all the free-to-air broadcasters. Beyond that, the only thing that can justify the investment in an already oversupplied market is if the design and presentation of the whole television experience is a breakthrough of consumer clarity. The service needs to point the way towards a 21st century channel brand experience, not be a vehicle to let the VOD teams build non-linear empires.

My feeling is that common sense is breaking out and that this is achievable. That means deciding that the PC player brands have no role on TV where there is an existing player brand like YouView, Sky or Virgin. That is a big emotional step to take for many of the VOD teams, but crucial if YouView is to succeed.

We will also have to resolve how YouView relates to Freeview and Freesat in the minds of consumers. At the moment, it feels like the three organisations are competing against each other, not co-ordinating towards a single view of the future of ‘free TV’.

None of this helps the consumer and all of this is occurring at a time when the device manufacturers are looking to increase their consumer profile with devices that offer branded content services as well.

On behalf of the consumer, someone with a brand marketing hat on needs to step in and clear up this mess.”

Nigel Walley is the managing director of Decipher, an informitv partner.

If you have a view on YouView, as a prospective partner or a potential competitor, our readers would be interested in your personal perspective.