YouView has published details of the programming and service providers with which it will work initially to develop the broadband enabled television platform. While the inclusion of Sky may be a surprise to some, apart from some other predictable names it seems the initial programming proposition will be driven by traditional broadcasters. Following the appointment of Lord Sugar as non-executive chairman, the chief executive invited informitv to an exclusive briefing at their offices in the Broadcast Centre at the BBC White City campus and provided a preview of the YouView user experience.
Much has been made of the appointment of the plain speaking Lord Sugar, who has extensive experience in consumer electronics, having sold his Amstrad business to Sky. Alan Sugar was brought in to replace former consultant and Ofcom partner Kip Meek at the instigation of Richard Desmond, the owner of Channel Five, one of the shareholders in the joint venture. A report in the Telegraph, quoting an unnamed senior television executive, said that “Lord Sugar will either cure or kill off YouView.”
Richard Halton, the chief executive of YouView, was charmingly disarming, suggesting that Lord Sugar would not have got involved if he did not have confidence in the joint venture. He is apparently taking a keen interest in the project. Be that as it may, the brand of Lord Sugar is such that his reputation would be unlikely to be damaged if he did indeed pull the plug on the project, although no doubt it would be enhanced if he manages to pull it together. By all accounts, his straightforward style in the boardroom is not unlike his persona on The Apprentice, the reality business show that has made him a household name in Britain, the latest series of which he has just finished shooting.
It is difficult not to see Richard Halton in the unfortunate position of project manager of a team of competing players, each with their own vested interests to pursue and protect. If he is under pressure, he is not showing it, displaying instead untroubled optimism in the prospects for the project.
YouView has just announced a long list of companies with which it will work, after apparently receiving interest from hundreds of organisations.
Some were surprised to see Sky among them, given that the pay-television provider has been a vocal critic of YouView in the past. This was widely misreported as a change in policy from Sky, although it is entirely consistent with their modus operandi. Sky will no doubt pay close attention to YouView and keep their options open to provide programming on the platform, although they have not made any commitment to do so. YouView will welcome the apparent support from Sky, but they were hardly in a position not to engage with such a major provider of programming, even though it may confuse the proposition of the platform. One can imagine Sky participating in YouView simply to put pressure on its shareholders to make their programming available on demand on an equivalent basis through the Sky platform.
Indeed, one of the main reasons for the existence of YouView is apparently because the terrestrial broadcasters could not see eye to eye with Sky, a founding shareholder in Freeview. The BBC had argued that it would be impossible to implement an upgrade to the terrestrial television platform through Freeview for “commercially sensitive reasons”. These are understood to be related to plans by Sky to launch its own pay-television initiative on digital terrestrial television, known as Picnic. Sky suspended its plans after long regulatory delays, although it they were eventually approved as part of an Ofcom ruling that Sky must offer its Sky Sports 1 and 2 channels to other providers.
There are few surprises among the other programming providers selected to work with YouView at this stage. The surprise is that there are few big names and no major studios, production companies, or multinational corporations. The list includes Blinkbox, LoveFilm and woomi, all of which could stand to gain additional distribution by being on the platform as well as on other connected television devices and displays. The same might be said of Guardian News and Media.
Others include Film4oD, part owned by Channel Four which is a shareholder in the YouView joint venture, and STV and UTV, both of which are Channel 3 franchises that are outside ITV plc, another partner in the platform. There is also Radioplayer, a new initiative to bring the majority of radio stations in the country online under a single banner, which is a natural fit for YouView, or for that matter Freeview and Freesat. That leaves IndieMoviesOnline, which has a library of movies that it streams free online, interrupted by advertising, and the Travel Channel.
The remaining names — blinkx, Goland Media Ventures, Pushbutton, StreamUK and Tvinci — are part of a wider advisory group of service providers. Then there is a further core enabler group, comprising Capablue, Deluxe, ioko, Nativ, Red Bee Media, Technicolor, TripleSEE and Twofour, with a wider group encompassing Alcatel-Lucent, blinkx, easeltv, IMD, Kaltura and Ooyala.
There is no sign at this stage of the Royal Opera House or NHS Direct, both of which were cited in the original BBC proposals for Project Canvas. Indeed there is little that suggests a launch proposition that will significantly extend the choice of programming beyond the broadcasters that are among the primary stakeholders. Instead there are a number of service providers and systems integrators that would like to be able to help organisations onto the platform, should they so desire. YouView might suggest that this is because the companies with which they initially want to work will have to make a considerable time commitment to contribute to the development of the platform. However, one would not expect that to prevent the participation of a multinational player like Sony if they so wished.
“We’re delighted with the response we’ve had from the creative industries,” the YouView chief executive said in the announcement. “The diversity and expertise of the organisations that are informing our development will ensure that YouView is able to support a potentially unlimited range of content in the future.”
The various processes and guidelines on which the industry groups are advising will be published on the YouView web site. Later this year, all interested parties will be invited to confirm their formal intention to making their programming available via the YouView platform.
YouView has committed to publishing the core technical specification for the platform by 14 April, based on the D-Book 7 specification that is being finalised by the Digital Television Group industry association. Publication of a developer application programming interface will follow, but well ahead of launch.
Richard Halton had said he would show informitv the latest work in progress, but instead opted to demonstrate a walkthrough in Adobe Flash on an Apple laptop. He dismissed an earlier media report that the set-top box software “just doesn’t work when you turn it on and keeps crashing,” suggesting that it did indeed work but some issues were inevitable at this stage.
The user experience that was shown was reasonably rational but hardly revolutionary. Although largely driven through up, down, left, right and select buttons, it still seems to employ the red, green, yellow and blue colour keys that were introduced for teletext services decades ago and pressed into use for interactive television. Without using an interactive interface on representative hardware with a remote control it is difficult to judge how well it will work. The challenge will be to ensure consistency across third-party services, while still allowing for creative innovation.
In a world in which others are experimenting with integrating smartphones and tablets to provide touch screen navigation and voice control, YouView is keeping it simple, which may limit sophistication but serves to ensure basic usability and accessibility.
The requirement to support Adobe Flash means that the platform will require a fairly powerful processor, which pushes up the hardware specification and the bill of materials. It is not yet clear that this will result in a user experience that is any more compelling or efficient than competing alternatives. We look forward to the opportunity to see a working prototype.
The big idea for YouView is a conventional grid guide schedule that scrolls backwards as well as forwards, allowing users to catch up on programmes transmitted in the previous seven days. It is an idea that has already been implemented by Virgin Media with its new TiVo box. Other services such as Fetch TV can be expected to offer something similar.
The chief executive of YouView suggests the platform will have the edge because it will have more catch-up programmes available, although the consortium will no doubt face regulatory challenges if this is as a result of any limitation to supply competing platforms. YouView seems to believe it is now out of the regulatory woods but the shareholders will still have to tread carefully to avoid a thorny thicket of competition issues. That means not only operating the YouView platform in a manner that is fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory, but also making their programming available to other platforms on equivalent terms to avoid the suggestion that it operates as a cartel.
The real problem that YouView faces is that integrating catch-up programming with the conventional schedule is a useful innovation rather than a revolutionary transformation of television. That may well suit the shareholder public service broadcasters who have a vested interest in maintaining their regulated prominence in a channel based schedule. Users may also have access to movies through subscription services like LoveFilm, now owned by Amazon, but that is already available across multiple platforms. YouView currently lacks a unique selling proposition.
The difficulty that YouView may face will be persuading users to use another set-top box, albeit with a powerful twin-tuner digital video recorder, when consumer electronics manufacturers will be selling flat screen televisions with integrated internet connectivity in their millions.
BT and TalkTalk are expected to bundle subsidised YouView boxes with their broadband services, but it faces strong competition as a proposition in the open horizontal retail market. The YouView brand may be backed by a multimillion pound marketing campaign, but the retail price point will be critical. Given the established mindshare that Freeview and Freesat have in the market there is a risk of confusing consumers with yet another brand.
Despite increasing doubts about the prospects for the YouView initiative, which will now not launch until early 2012, the project appears to be pressing on undaunted by the scale of the challenge, rather like the preparations for the London Olympics which it hopes will drive uptake.