A packed annual summit of the Digital Television Group, the industry association with responsibility for receiver standards in the United Kingdom, has been considering the future of hybrid broadcast and broadband services. Notably absent was any representation from YouView, the long-promised platform that has yet to launch, although it was suggested that could now be planned for 14 May. The DTG is meanwhile moving ahead with its own hybrid television taskforce and the BBC is renewing its interest in the red button.
“We all know that connected TV will be a game changer,” said David Docherty, the chairman of the DTG, announcing the new Hybrid TV Taskforce. Having skilfully navigated the politics of YouView, the DTG is continuing to build on available open standards to establish a horizontal market for all receiver manufacturers, feeding enhancements into international standards bodies to support harmonisation and interoperability.
Simon Gauntlett, editor of the D-Book, which profiles the specifications for digital terrestrial television receivers in the United Kingdom, spoke of the plans for the next phase of development. This will include support for an enhanced programme guide, based on TV Anytime, which will allow scrolling back seven days, allow links to trailers or web sites, and support a remote booking mechanism for digital video recorders, signalled in the broadcast stream.
All of which continues to question remaining rationale for YouView, which was notably not represented at this summit. A year previously, Richard Halton of YouView had suggested that “successful launches are worth the wait”. It seems that we must still wait and see, while many of the innovations promised by YouView are either already available elsewhere or will be simply rolled into future receiver specifications.
Ilse Howling, the managing director of Freeview, suggesting the need for evolution rather than revolution, argued that the most important player in the discussion is the consumer. She defended the importance of free to air television and the need to ensure that hybrid technologies are not used as a smokescreen to erode the concept of free television, literally at the expense of ordinary people.
Freeview is going from strength to strength, now in 20 million homes, as digital switchover nears completion. It is now standard in a new generation of high-definition receivers being sold in the United Kingdom. Of 4.4 million Freeview HD receivers sold, some 2.7 million are in smart screens that are already capable of being connected to the internet.
Richard Bullwinkle of Rovi suggested that only around 35% of conectable televisions are actually connected in the United Kingdom, compared to over 70% in the United States and around 50% on average worldwide.
Paul Szucs from Sony spoke on behalf of the Open IPTV Forum, a broad based industry association which has pioneered the development of open standards for internet protocol television and has extended these to cater for services delivered over the top of the open internet.
Klaus Illgner-Fehns , the managing director of IRT, the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, reminded delegates of the success of the HbbTV approach, already deployed in France, Germany and Spain, with a number of other countries investigating the potential of the standard. He also spoke of the seamless user experience of simply pressing the red button on the remote.
The red button was originally a British innovation, pioneered by Sky but then promoted by the BBC as a standard call to action across all digital television platforms.
Daniel Danker, the general manager for the BBC iPlayer, spoke of a renewed focus on the red button. Although it had fallen out of favour at the BBC, an estimated 19 million people a month use it, mainly to access digital text services, a quarter of them never using BBC online. Now it seems the BBC is rediscovering the red button and plans to use it to link to connected television services.
Emma Barnett, the digital media editor of the Daily Telegraph, let slip she had heard that YouView would finally launch on 14 May. That would be exactly three months after the last date that had been suggested, although there has been no word from YouView since September 2011, when it was said to be “on track to launch in early 2012”.
Nigel Walley of Decipher, talked of technology push driving supply side innovation with little thought of the consumer. He described launching YouView as yet another free to air brand as “an utter nonsense” that would lead to further consumer confusion. He also said that while the BBC iPlayer has done an amazing job, the imposition of its own navigational paradigm on other operator services could result in a really poor user experience.
Given the technical focus of much of the discussion, the concern for the viewer was welcome. The overall message was that it should be easier to connect television to the internet and that services must be simple to use. Ironically it seems that broadcasters may be rediscovering the red button as the key to connected, smart, interactive television. In a world of smart phones and tablets without so many buttons, that may not be such a smart move.