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Interview: Virgin Media Plans TiVo Web Apps Beside Web, Mobile VOD

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UK cable operator Virgin Media’s new web and mobile VOD service will offer premium archive material, rather than the latest catch-up shows, because broadcasters already offer own-brand catch-up services, Virgin Media’s TV and online executive director Alex Green tells paidContent:UK.

*Virgin Media* Player

Right now, it’s TV from the last seven days that’s proving a big hit on web services like BBC iPlayer, ITV.com, 4oD and Demand Five. Virgin Media offers most of this on its cable TV service but, as far as Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) Player goes: “We don’t see catch-up as that as being particularly unique – it’s freely available on iPlayer and so on. We may link to those other providers but we don’t see the need to embed catchup in the service.”

Instead, Virgin Media Player is more about taking its TV Choice cable VOD catalogue (less recent shows from the likes of Living) on to two new screens…

The website centres around Flash streaming and is accessible only to Virgin Media’s top-tier, XL TV customers. A Java mobile app is available to those, too, but: “We are incentivising usage from quad-play customers – if you subscribe to Virgin Media and have *Virgin Mobile* service, you’ll be able to get an hour a day free content on the player.”

The business logic for Virgin Media Player is less about a new income stream in itself and more about driving bundled subscriptions, Green says: “It’s principally supporting our higher-tier TV customers, giving them access to this great VOD content from TV on other screens – it’s a value add for which we’re not charging any extra.” Pre-roll ads will be sold by Virgin Media’s in-house IDS team and split with content owners.

*TiVo* set-top box

This will also link up somehow with the new cable set-top PVR box and EPG TiVo is developing for Virgin Media by year’s end, Green says…

“We see this very much as part of our multi-screen strategy – TiVo (NSDQ: TIVO) is at the centre of that. The way we are creating TiVo is replicated in this service – there’s a real focus on content discovery – you can search, browse, get recommendations and make playlists – helping you discover content you know you like or didn’t know you liked.

“It very much complements TiVo – that will be about bringing new content sources from the web to the TiVo.”

Green wouldn’t comment on from which web sources Virgin’s TiVo box will offer content, but he referred to “apps” as much as video and likened it to the TiVo Premiere service in the U.S., which includes YouTube, Time (NYSE: TWX) magazine, CNET, Twitter, Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI) rentals, RSS, podcasts, a range of photo sharing and music access services plus side-loading of recordings and more.

“What TiVo does allow is a whole world of combining over-the-top delivered content with our core TV service. That can be a whole range of apps as well as pure video. TiVo Premiere opens up that whole new world from the web to TV.”

It’s the first time TiVo has operated in the UK since 2003, when it abandoned the Thomson PVR10UK box it built with with Thomson Multimedia and BSkyB (NYSE: BSY). It gives Virgin Media exclusive UK rights to use the TiVo brand and technology.

Canvas competition

No wonder Virgin Media is suspicious about Project Canvas, the UK connected-TV standards venture formed by the BBC, ITV (LSE: ITV), C4, TalkTalk, BT (NYSE: BT) and Arqiva. Though Canvas was conceived to harmonise delivery of broadcasters’ VOD to TVs, it also plans an “apps”-like feature that would, for example, let UK Netflix equivalent LoveFilm deliver movie rentals or let users browse Flickr photos and tweets…

The cable platform and the broadcasters are planning similar feature roll-outs – but from different positions.

“We see Canvas as a strong competitive service,” Green says. “What we’re aiming to do with TiVo and the player is get a head start on them.”