WhoView? UK’s big IPTV project finally nears, facing challenges

YouView consortium members' bosses

When I watched the BBC’s then digital director Erik Huggers announce, on stage at Mipcom 2008, a project to create a new industry internet TV platform, the stated aims were to head off TV manufacturers’ own, soon-to-proliferate IPTV standards and to challenge the rising power of BSkyB’s pay-TV content with a subscription-free alternative.

But, almost four years after that announcement in Cannes, YouView – the eventual box and service which, it announced on Wednesday, will finally go on sale in late July – is entering a market now defined by that very proliferation; and it could help, not hurt, pay-TV.

Jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva, YouView is the brand for a Humax-made Freeview (DTT) set top box with Ethernet (not WiFi) connection, sporting a DVR and a neat backward EPG from which viewers open shows in broadcasters’ branded, free catch-up TV services. It will retail for £299 through seven big-name retailers and in ISPs’ phone-broadband-TV bundles.

The move of TV VOD from desktop web back to TV via internet is a glorious, impending given. But those catch-up services are already on internet-connected TV sets which the likes of Samsung, Sony and LG have been shipping for the last couple of years. For many consumers, these manufacturers, and not the broadcasters, are now the gatekeepers.

Though Samsung Smart TVs, for example, boast hundreds of additional on-board apps, YouView, which has long promised add-on services like Lovefilm, confirmed none in its announcement on Wednesday.

The main third party to have announced its support is the very rival whose subscription TV YouView had sought to challenge. BSkyB, which is unbundling its satellite TV sport, movie and entertainment packages for a new internet TV service, Now TV, will be offer the service for a flexible monthly fee on YouView and other boxes. The new platform conceived by the BBC could be the making of BSkyB, whose satellite  customer base of over 10 million may be plateauing, in the post-satellite, IP age. Sky could make a pretty penny selling its content this way, as opposed to requiring a satellite subscription.

 

Though the consortium once talked of wooing TV manufacturers themselves to build YouView in as their internet TV standard, with the major manufacturers now forging their own paths, this now seems unlikely.

All of this seems to make YouView, scheduled to cost £115 million over four years, most attractive to mainstream viewers who aren’t planning to shell out on a new connected TV, who do want similar features but who are confused by internet TV box options like Boxee, Roku and game consoles. That makes for a respectable enough consumer market segment.

But the future is problematic. Thanks to manufacturer support at the time, the Freeview digital terrestrial TV consortium, on which YouView is modelled, at least had the comfort of knowing analogue TV migrants were certain to upgrade to a Freeview-native digital set at their eventual next purchase. Without the same kind of manufacturer buy-in for TV integration beyond its launch box, YouView may be an interim stop-gap – consumers who do buy YouView may eventually switch to Samsung or Sony set when they’re ready to splash out on their next telly.

“We’ve been talking about this for four years as the future of TV but it’s only just gone to beta testing and the set-top boxes are not yet in the shops,” writes Informa Telecoms & Media principal analyst Nick Thomas. “Clearly, the consortium wanted to make some kind of impact ahead of the Olympics, but in effect this will not be a mainstream proposition for UK consumers until the end of 2012.

“Had it launched in 2010 or 2011, it would have been able to shape the market, but now, it is another smart TV platform competing with offers from Freeview Plus, Sky, Virgin Media and TV manufacturers. The defining features of YouView– such as the backwards EPG – are no longer so revolutionary. And we still need to know if it the platform actually works.”

Writes Greenwich Consulting partner Oliver Wolf: “Had this launched in 2010, the service would have been a clear success. Getting (consumers) to buy into a whole new service will be no mean-feat.

“The set-top boxes on show today look promising, and no doubt plenty of marketing budget will be plunged into making YouView a hit by the end of the year. Is the launch too late? It may well have come just in the nick of time, as consumers confused by the various disparate services on show, look to go back to basics.”

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