Canvassing opinion 

13 November 2009 tbs.pm/1114

BBC director Erik Huggers gives a preview of Project Canvas

Much has been talked about Project Canvas but until now there wasn’t much to actually see of what it consisted of. Still incomplete and awaiting approval, Project Canvas promises a great deal for broadcasters and viewers in terms of convenience and features, but Canvas has predictably stirred up controversy despite its open approach.

BSkyB’s public stance relating to Project Canvas is distinctly (and predictably) negative; indeed it desperately tried to draw as many similarities as possible between it and Project Kangaroo (as previously canned by the Competition Commission), hoping that by doing so Canvas will meet an equivalent fate.

However it has been said that BSkyB is privately interested in Project Canvas and the potential it may have in the video-on-demand marketplace; it’s not hard to imagine Sky quietly thinking that it may ultimately be better to back a broadcaster-agnostic, UK-oriented solution as opposed to making a pact with the devil (something like Google).

Rupert Murdoch may be on record as hating both the BBC and Google, but at least the BBC has a non-commercial role to play in Project Canvas (and the Murdochs can always lean hard on politicians if they suspect any ‘foul play’ from their perspective), as opposed to the likes of Google (a free agent that’s nearly impossible to control or dictate to).

As ultimately – like it or not – Sky’s traditional strengths relate to working in concert with other broadcasters to provide variety on a satellite-based viewing platform as opposed to a more restricted choice found elsewhere (even if it does feature a proprietary encryption method and EPG).

Therefore the overall message here seems to be “Get on board or miss out”, leading to the conclusion that if Project Canvas is given the go-ahead then BSkyB would be much better off participating with it as opposed to gnashing its teeth from the sidelines, particularly as Sky still has premium sports and movies to sell. (For the time being.)

This mantra is particularly true when there are a growing number of video-on-demand solutions out there, such as YouTube/Google now offering full-length programmes (and perhaps wrongly endorsed by Channel 4), Bing/Microsoft, Hulu, Boxee, See Saw/Arquiva, etc., along with the BBC’s iPlayer and other existing, broadcaster-specific platforms.

Indeed the strong USP for Canvas is that it unites UK broadcasters under one convenient open platform interface, but it’s this fact alone that could threaten the very existence of Canvas based on what controversially happened to Project Kangaroo, especially given the extreme negative response that the Competition Commission gave to Kangaroo.

This alone has made many people within the media industry feel that Project Canvas is ultimately doomed regardless of any differences between it and Kangaroo, especially as the Commission even went as far as preventing anything like Project Kangaroo from being resurrected within five years.

A decision that was very surprising when you consider how Sky dominates satellite television and Virgin Media does likewise for cable, combined with a negligible likelihood of an independent competitive UK-centric video-on-demand solution being developed considering the fact that most broadcasters hold many of the rights to their content.

I personally believe that the BBC Trust will decide to support the continued development of Project Canvas, albeit with some preconditions designed to ensure transparancy and fairness (the sort of thing which would inevitably be in place anyway), but again it’s the Competition Commission that poses the greatest potential threat to Canvas as it stands.

Therefore it’s not surprising to learn that the Commission now has a wide range of critics ranging from a House of Lords communications committee to (unsurprisingly) the broadcasters themselves; immense pressure is now being exerted onto Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw to force the Commission into giving Canvas the green light.

There are certainly strong commercial arguments for Project Canvas, but whether all of the protesting will be enough to give this much-heralded project the final go-ahead of course remains to be seen; it’s not hard to recall all the very optimistic noises being made about Project Kangaroo during its early days.

And look what happened to that.

Given the fact that the UK media industry desperately needs an open and competitive video-on-demand solution in order to ensure a greater degree of future success, Project Canvas or something like it is certainly required if the UK media industry is to really thrive in the longer term.

And – like it or not – the established broadcasters will always have the upper hand, despite independent producers’ dreams of truly independent programme distribution; a desire that has sometimes been cited as a reason against allowing a ‘cartel’ of established broadcasters controlling a distribution channel.

Or not, as is theoretically the case with the Project Canvas guarantee of independence, although there is still very much a requirement for “safety in numbers” when it comes to promoting and distributing popular content.

The alternative is a market full of confusing proprietary solutions that threaten to stagnate the consumer video-on-demand market for years to come; with dozens of potential ‘Betamaxes’ to avoid it’s not hard to see the average viewer just relying on iPlayer and its equivalents until a foreign competitor dominates the scene.

All this market fragmentation will work in favour of Project Canvas for the time being if it is given the go-ahead, but any failure to approve any such ‘universal’ solution in the first place will definitely result in a major setback for the UK media industry.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 22 September 2022