It was never really clear what Arqiva saw in SeeSaw, but we will no longer need to wait and see. The transmission company will pull the plug and cut its losses after so far failing to find many viewers, or another investor or buyer, for the British online video site. It was never evident how SeeSaw would sit with the YouView consortium, in which Arqiva remains a sleeping partner.
The origin of SeeSaw lay in UKVOD, a joint venture between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, otherwise known as project Kangaroo, which was effectively killed by the Competition Commission in February 2009 as “too much of a threat to competition”. Six months later, Arqiva acquired the assets for a reported £8 million.
The company, which operates the national transmission networks for terrestrial broadcasters in the United Kingdom, had no previous experience managing a rights business, offering a consumer service, or running an online operation.
Arqiva appointed Pierre-Jean Sebert, a former managing director of British Eurosport, as chief executive of the SeeSaw venture, with John Keeling, the former chief operating officer of UKTV as platform controller.
As informitv noted when the SeeSaw brand was revealed in November 2009: “Without co-operation from the original partners, and access to their libraries, the venture faces substantial challenges in a competitive market”.
SeeSaw launched in February 2010 with around 3,000 hours of programming, most of which was already available elsewhere online, including Channel 4 programmes on YouTube. SeeSaw spent many millions more on licensing programming but saw little return on its significant investment.
Unlike Hulu, which had the backing of major networks as shareholders, albeit sometimes ambivalent, SeeSaw received limited support from the former partners in Kangaroo. Notably missing were shows from ITV.
Despite a clean user interface, SeeSaw lacked a clear consumer proposition. It failed to find an audience or establish a sustainable business model, after trying everything from advertising to subscription and rental.
Since launch, SeeSaw reported that it reached five million unique visitors, which is around the number of users the BBC iPlayer serves every week. SeeSaw proudly reported delivering 1.3 million programme views a month. The BBC iPlayer serves around 90 million.
The user experience was not helped by the load of adverts, with up to three 30-second pre-rolls before a programme could be viewed.
British broadcasters concentrated instead on their own online video ventures and renewing their collaboration in Project Canvas, which Arqiva joined in March 2010 and was later branded YouView. SeeSaw was an uncomfortable fit with Youview and its future became increasingly uncertain following a strategic review. The business was folded into the broadcast and media unit of Arqiva.
A former ITV executive was appointed as the new chief executive of Arqiva in January 2011 and the next week revealed that it was looking for an investment partner in SeeSaw. It appointed Ingenious Media to find a partner or a buyer but it seems no amount of ingenuity could find one.
Arqiva said that SeeSaw “no longer fits with the strategic direction in which we are taking Arqiva and requires considerable investment to succeed in an increasingly competitive market”. In the absence of a buyer, the business will close on 20 June.
“We’re sad to announce that next month will be the end of the road for SeeSaw,” reads a notice on the SeeSaw site. It continues: “SeeSaw has become a great place to watch TV for millions of UK viewers. However, as part of an ongoing strategic review of its business activities Arqiva, our parent company, is no longer able to support the service.”
A number of comments beneath express their regret, but one anonymous contributor wrote tellingly: “I always thought it was a pretty confusing proposition… premium, non-stop, rental, free ad-funded!? It was like it was trying everything to see what stuck, and it would appear none of it did.”
Whether through lack of foresight, investment, or nerve, SeeSaw remained an online proposition and failed to develop a strategy to reach network connected television devices and displays. Relying on Youview to provide a connected television experience may deliver too little too late.
SeeSaw got many things right and a lot wrong, falling far short of expectations of creating a British Hulu. While the BBC iPlayer reigns supreme, commercial broadcasters have yet to make a similar impact.
SeeSaw was also competing with a number of other online services, like Blinkbox, which was recently bought out by the major retailer Tesco, paying an undisclosed sum for an 80% stake in the business.
The opportunity for online video to replace the declining market for DVD box sets remains wide open. Consumer electronics companies will continue to compete for the attention of viewers and major players like Amazon and Apple will become increasingly dominant as distributors, while broadcasters play catch-up.