Catch-up work 

1 November 2010

Nearly everyone seems to agree that some form of video-on-demand represents the future of television, so naturally there’s a race on between established UK providers (BSkyB, Virgin Media) and broadcasters/producers who want something that’s perhaps a bit less proprietary (namely, YouView) whilst at the same time not ceding too much control.

Although BSkyB and Virgin Media in particular have attempted all sorts of delaying tactics in respect to YouView, the reality is that YouView itself won’t be ready until the middle of next year in anticipation of rapid takeup during the 2012 Olympics.

But what about YouView’s competitors? Google TV is already a reality in America, but Version 1.0 still seems very much a work in progress despite its claimed functionality, at least according to this Engadget review – there’s initially no Silverlight (or QuickTime) support as well as various usability issues.

(YouView and others must be very relieved at this point.)

Plus Engadget’s review highlights an ongoing problem with many of these video-on-demand services. Currently in the US, if you try to access shows from ABC, CBS, NBC and Hulu using Google TV, you are instead confronted with a message saying that you can’t; it’s the same old story of fragmentation, rights issues and broadcaster rivalry.

Similar issues held the music industry back until rampant file sharing took hold and Apple’s iTunes forced a complete rethink; traditional broadcast television is still partially cushioned by advertising/sponsorship and subscription income streams, meaning that networks and producers alike still have enough financial clout to call the shots.

(And traditional broadcasters are still scared stiff of Google and what YouTube has done in respect to unleashing ‘free’ content.)

Of course this explains why BSkyB in the UK has recently been on a content acquisition spending spree (HBO series deal, Living TV, Mad Men, etc.), meaning that BSkyB has more control over more content as well as helping to negate recent moves to force Sky to share some of its channels (something that arguably should have been done years ago).

Having said that, as BSkyB now own the UK rights to a fair chunk of US-originated programming in particular, at least there’s only one broadcaster that will need to be coerced into making that content more readily available, but it could be many years before Sky’s current monopoly is well and truly broken as a consequence.

In the meantime, Sky’s Anytime+ will soon be available to all of its subscribers as well as Virgin Media’s TiVo-based system appearing fairly shortly as well, but of course both systems will be restricted to their respective subscriber bases.

Broadcaster control is the significant reason why video-on-demand services have been relatively slow to develop outside of giants such as Google, and is the element of truth behind claims of “the collective power of YouView’s backers” having a “chilling effect” on UK VOD investment. (What about Sky/Virgin, Apple, Google and Microsoft, etc.?)

It’s arguable that YouView’s real competition comes from Apple, Google and Microsoft as opposed to the subscriber-only ‘closed’ systems provided by BSkyB and Virgin Media, although the latter are clearly worried about the former’s long term theoretical ability to erode their monopoly/market share in relation to content provision.

For YouView’s dream of a more ‘open’ system to finally happen, the pressure’s now on to deliver a first class product by 2012 if it’s to avoid being left as an also-ran in the video-on-demand stakes.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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