The BBC Trust has begun a review of the involvement of the BBC in YouView and whether it meets the conditions it set for participation in the broadcast and broadband convergence television platform. While the remit for the review is restricted, there are many questions to be asked about how far the YouView platform has fulfilled the original promise of the open standards environment that was originally described as Project Canvas.
The Trust gave approval in June 2010 for the BBC involvement in Project Canvas, which became YouView, subject to a number of conditions, which would be reviewed 12 months after launch.
One of the conditions was that “the Canvas core technical specification will be made available to third parties on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis”.
The YouView Core Technical Specification has indeed been published on the YouView web site. Version 1.0 is dated April 2011 and has not been revised since. The 230-page document is necessary, but not sufficient for manufacturers to create a YouView compatible box. While it gives some detail on delivery technologies, it is far from adequate to allow third-party programming providers to integrate with the platform.
So far there have been few third-party services available on the YouView platform. Ironically, one of them is from Sky in the form of Now TV, while another is an adult video-on-demand service from Television X.
It seems that YouView is far from the open environment that was originally described by Project Canvas.
A year after launch in July 2012, there is only one manufacturer producing YouView boxes for retail. That is Humax, which also supplies BT on a wholesale basis, while Huawei supplies TalkTalk.
YouView reported at the end of May that it was “on its way to reaching 400,000 homes across the UK”. TalkTalk has reported that at the end of June its YouView customer base had reached 390,000. That does not suggest that YouView has sold a significant number of boxes either retail or wholesale to BT.
The original justification for Project Canvas was to create “a standards based open environment for internet connected television platforms in the UK,” as stated in on the first page of the Proposition and Public Value case submitted by the BBC executive for approval by the Trust, although no longer available on their web site.
The proposal continued: “The ambition is to use these standards to drive the development of new free to air DTT and DSat boxes, to coincide with the transition of the existing DTT standard to High Definition in late 2009. This standard would be available to all set top box manufacturers and could be adopted by any UK television service provider.”
Describing the proposition, as “an open platform,” it was argued that third parties would be able to make their media available on the living room screen, from Flickr, to the Royal Opera House, to NHS Direct. No such services have surfaced on YouView.
It was argued that this could not possibly be achieved through the existing Freeview or Freesat platforms. However, it was stated that the specification would be platform neutral, aimed at both terrestrial and satellite television reception. Subsequently, both the Freeview and Freesat platforms have been able to integrate online services successfully.
At the time, it was envisaged that was to become the YouView service would launch in 2010 and by 2013 would have between 4.5 and 6.3 million receivers, reaching between 7.2 and 10.7 million in 2017. Needless to say, YouView has reached nothing like those numbers, or even the million or more originally envisaged for the first year.
How far the YouView join venture has met any of these objectives is a matter of serious concern for the BBC Trust.
Some might argue that the main beneficiaries have been the broadband service provider partners, BT and TalkTalk, who have gained an enhanced platform and personal video recorder design at comparatively low cost, with the positive support of the BBC and other public service broadcasters.
The benefits to the BBC are so far unclear, given that Freeview and Freesat continue to dominate the free-to-air market, with over 12 million homes in the United Kingdom between them.
No doubt mindful of sensitivity about cross-promotion, the BBC has given YouView very little visible support, either through on-air messaging or the provision of innovative services.
Although the original rationale for Project Canvas was that so-called syndication of programming online would not be sufficient, the BBC has nevertheless delivered programming to multiple platforms and devices with considerable success, to the extent that virtually anyone with a broadband connected television can access the BBC iPlayer, without the need for YouView.
The Trust has said that it will focus on four areas: accessibility, syndication, cross-promotion and editorial signposting.
While the Trust may feel compelled to consider on those conditions on which it granted formal approval for the involvement of the BBC in what was to become the YouView consortium, there are surely wider questions to be asked.
Not only is there the issue of value for money but the Trust should also surely consider whether it was materially misled about the nature of the project.
Far from being “a standards based open environment,” Project Canvas has evolved into YouView as a proprietary platform primarily for the benefit of commercial broadband service providers.
As a result, the success of the YouView initiative is necessarily limited. Far from fuelling a competitive horizontal retail market for receivers, the growth of YouView is constrained by the number of subscribers that broadband service providers can attract and the degree to which they can subsidise set-top boxes, a classic pay-television model.
Back in 2008, the BBC had an opportunity to take a leadership role in helping to shape this emerging market, building on the success of the BBC iPlayer to establish open standards for online delivery in a television environment.
The real failure is that the United Kingdom still does not have a unified open standards based environment for the delivery of hybrid broadcast and broadband services. Every year sees millions more flat screen televisions sold with integrated terrestrial or satellite tuners, while the market becomes increasingly fragmented as manufacturers pursue their own approaches.