The new YouView internet-connected television platform, backed by a consortium of British broadcasters and network operators, is now unlikely to launch before next year, according to a further damaging media report. Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, took the opportunity of a speech at the Oxford Media Convention and an audience including Jeremy Hunt, the government minister with responsibility for media, to defend the role of the BBC in defining the increasingly troubled YouView platform.
“The universal delivery of high quality free-to-air content faces immediate threats and a future which is by no means certain,” he said. “Unless the broadcasters take an active role in defending it, it could disappear entirely.”
“We still have thriving free-to-air options for television in this country because the broadcasters — and especially the BBC — decided to engage and work together to turn things around some eight years ago.”
“YouView,” he said “is the next chapter in our broadcast innovation story.” He warned that “Over the coming years, we’re going to see an intense battle for the living room.”
“Many of the participants in this battle will seek to control the user experience of TV and on demand audio-visual content as far as they can,” he said, without irony. “YouView will be different.”
One of the main criticisms of YouView from manufacturers and other platform operators is that YouView seeks to specify and control the user interface. However, the director general of the BBC observed that “The user-experience and search and navigation environment will not unfairly exclude or favour some content players”. He continued: “The only things they won’t be able to do is to determine the economics or the business model by which others gain access to the platform or to gain differential proprietary advantage through ownership of the user experience.”
He challenged those who have complained that YouView is anticompetitive, arguing “YouView is an open standard,” although it must be said it has not yet been published. He said “anyone who meets the standard will be able to build YouView boxes, TVs and other devices” which will “encourage genuine competition in the consumer electronics market, just as it will in content and in the provision of broadband services” and “and encourage new entrants and new investment”.
“Without partnerships like YouView and without the continued active engagement of the BBC and the other public broadcasters in platform development, the danger is quite simply that free-to-air broadcasting will become obsolescent and get squeezed out — and the future will belong to the closed systems.”
He concluded: “Those who seek to be digital gatekeepers would be only too happy if the BBC and other broadcasters left technological innovation and platform and network development to others. They argue that the market can provide. What I think they actually mean is that they would like to provide and indeed control.”
“It is only through open systems, and the resources and commitment to ensure that those open systems continue to innovate and develop, that we can be sure that no one will get left out of digital and that we really can guarantee access to all.”
These may be fine words, but the multimillion pound YouView joint venture has been widely criticised by competing platforms and manufacturers alike. The most damaging criticism is that the open standard has yet to be completed, or published, and furthermore that the prototype platform still does not work.
“It just doesn’t work when you turn it on and keeps crashing,” an unnamed senior television executive is reported as telling The Telegraph. “You would think that after at least 18 months of development and at least six million pounds worth of investment from each shareholder, the box would actually work when being shown to its owners.”
The paper reports that YouView has failed to agree technical standards with the Digital Television Group, the industry organisation that co-ordinates the development of digital terrestrial television standards in the United Kingdom.
The joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, Talk Talk and Arqiva, has a budget of £115 million over four years, with each partner committing an equal investment in the initiative.
The project, which has around 150 people working on it, is currently recruiting developers with experience in C++ or Flash, particularly those with “experience of memory management and performance optimisation, as well as those who understand the internal workings of the Flash player and virtual machine.”
YouView has not yet committed to a launch date. Richard Halton, the chief executive of YouView, a former strategist at the BBC, told The Telegraph: “We want to get YouView right and don’t want to rush the development. We will understand our launch position better by the end of March. We are not ruling out any launch date either way.”
He will be a keynote speaker at the annual DTG Summit on 4 March, at which the industry organisation will also present its plans for Connected TV. A DTG representative told informitv that its specification has been published to members and the Connected TV programme “remains on schedule”.
Meanwhile YouView has lost two of its highest profile proponents before the full specification has even been published.
Anthony Rose, the high profile chief technology officer of YouView, was replaced by an Accenture consultant in December. At a recent event on video on demand and the rise of web-connected television, he said that publishers must start distributing their programming on connected televisions “before it’s too late”. He said “You can’t be too early, if you wait too long, all the good territory will have been staked out and taken.”
Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology at the BBC, who originally championed the initiative as Project Canvas and appointed Anthony Rose to work on the BBC iPlayer, is now leaving the corporation at the end of February. The former Microsoft executive will become General Manager of the Intel Digital Home Group in Silicon Valley.
The BBC will now have a separate technology division, headed by former Yahoo! executive John Linwood as chief technology officer, and a future media division, led by Ralph Rivera, who joined the BBC last October from Major League Gaming in New York.
ITV has meanwhile reorganised its executives, losing Carolyn Fairbairn as director of Group development and strategy. The former head of strategy and distribution at the BBC was closely involved in the launch of the Freeview digital terrestrial television proposition following the failure of ITV Digital. She will continue to advise ITV on YouView until Easter although it sounds as if there will be much to be done after that.
David Abraham, the chief executive of Channel 4, said: “Until the marketing emerges, there’ll be some uncertainty at the edges of the industry, but for those that have seen the demo, and things like the backwards EPG, there’s no doubt YouView is a big initiative.” However, he told Broadcast magazine: “it’s only one example of convergence, which is happening anyway, in the shape of mobiles, iPads, everywhere.”
BT, another key partner in the joint venture, now says that following the launch of YouView it will continue to promote its own BT Vision service as part of its broadband offering. It plans to have an area on the YouView platform through which it will offer programming for which it has negotiated distribution deals with studios including ABC, NBC and Universal. “YouView enables BT to offer even more value to our customers by complementing all of the free content provided by the broadcasters with the Vision service,” said a representative.
Arqiva, which is also involved in YouView, is meanwhile looking for an investment partner for its own online television service. SeeSaw was acquired from the previous Project Kangaroo initiative involving the broadcast partners in YouView after that was blocked by the Competition Commission. Following a strategic review, Nick Thompson, the managing director of the Arqiva broadcast and media division says “we now believe the service needs further investment to reach its full potential”. The communications infrastructure and media services group which has revenues of around £850 million a year, recently appointed John Cresswell, the former interim chief executive of ITV as its chief executive. It is still unclear how SeeSaw might fit with YouView, so Arqiva is either hanging out a for sale sign or inviting a joint venture that could compete with the proposition of its broadcast customers.
Approval of the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal begs the question whether Hulu will expand outside North America, possibly entering the British market, which is a leading importer of shows from American studios. The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that Comcast will be able to retain the NBC stake in Hulu but would have to surrender its seats on the board. NBC would also be required to offer programming to Hulu and other online video services on similar terms to other broadcasters.
While British broadcasters have promoted the proposition of ‘catch-up’ television through their online services, there is little doubt that on demand access to American shows has a strong appeal to viewers in the United Kingdom. Broadcasters and pay-television providers currently pay for the rights to transmit these programmes and increasingly to distribute them online. How Hulu can expand internationally without undermining this valuable distribution model remains open to question.
However, with YouView facing the possibility of further delays, the window remains open for others to move in and establish a position in the living room.
Every month that passes represents a missed opportunity for YouView, as remaining analogue television households are converted, with digital television homes now at 93%, or 83% of all television screens. Manufacturers will sell millions of television devices and displays this year, many with some form of network connectivity. Sky and Virgin Media are rolling out their own broadband-enabled services.
The director general of the BBC may wish to present the corporation as an industry leader, but a lot has changed in over two years since Project Canvas was first proposed. Erik Huggers, its original champion, is now moving on to Intel, which is already promoting its own Smart TV solution. Time will tell whether YouView will arrive in time to preserve the prominence and pre-eminence of existing broadcast channels in the world of new television networks.