It was only ever a matter of time before our two main channels of media communication were united. The Internet has revolutionised everything from accessing news to purchasing music - our social lives are managed online, and now the opportunity to transform television has been given the green light.
For those of you who are new to the idea, YouView (née Project Canvas), in a nutshell, is TV delivered over the Internet. It is a collaboration between broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Five, Channel 4 and Arqiva) and broadband network providers (BT and TalkTalk) to develop a subscription-free, web-linked TV service combining Freeview digital channels with on-demand content such as iPlayer. This long-awaited IPTV project, hailed as the ‘Holy Grail’ for future public service broadcasting by BBC Director General Mark Thompson, promises to ‘change the way we watch television forever’, and is coming to our living rooms in early 2011. Such proclamations are to be expected from one of the project’s main backers – but they leave the rest of us wondering whether we really need another set-top box to add to our collection and whether IPTV really is the way forward.
The answer from the YouView consortium is, unsurprisingly, a resounding ‘yes’. It maintains that this simple and free-to-access service, with its easy-to-navigate interface, will soon be a necessity for all UK homes. YouView Chief Executive Richard Halton says the scheme is a great alternative for those who lack the ability or inclination to pay a monthly subscription for similar services offered by companies such as Sky and Virgin. These rivals are predictably unimpressed by YouView’s developments. But complaints to Ofcom that YouView will stifle competition are undermined by the fact that they’ll always have the lure of additional premium channels to tempt viewers.
The evolution of Project Canvas has been something of a roller coaster. It didn’t exactly have an easy start, with the failure of a similar BBC project (Kangaroo) back in 2008 still looming and vocal criticism coming from the likes of Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch. To make matters worse, Five opted to pull out of the deal in July (they later decided to rejoin). Recently, the scheme has earned a little more support, and Project Canvas was re-christened ‘YouView’, a name touted for some time, in September. Perhaps it’s just a happy coincidence that this name bears an uncanny resemblance to both Freeview itself and a certain global video sharing site owned by Google. A more appropriate moniker might have been ‘iView’, in keeping with ‘iPlayer’ or, better still, ‘iTV’ – although I’ve definitely heard the latter somewhere before.
In terms of functionality, YouView will enable you to watch so-called ‘Linear TV’ (the channels currently offered via Freeview and Freesat) as before, along with video-on-demand services like iPlayer and 4oD. In addition, you’ll be able to access popular sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr and on-demand pay TV – films, US drama and sport – all with a wave of your remote control. A recent YouView press release also boasted that it would be a potential platform for local TV services, making it ‘easier for viewers to discover and interact with localised content’.
It’s true that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about YouView. It has the usual suite of features you’d expect - HD, a video recorder and the ability to pause/rewind live TV - but what it does do is combine this with the enormous potential of the Internet in one nifty, take-home box. The fact that VoD services are available on something other than a laptop screen (or a Virgin Media package) will be the biggest draw for some.
On top of this, as an open platform, YouView is set to boast a whole array of interactive features – apps, widgets, games, you name it. This presents a massive opportunity for content, device and application developers to dip their toes into the IPTV market. The implications for viewers (or perhaps ‘users’ would now be a better term) look exciting.
It will be interesting to see whether this BBC-backed venture pays off. As competition to take over the small screen hots up from a clutch of other big names like Apple and Google, we have to wonder whether YouView will be the one to make the cut. If you’ve been following YouView’s development, or would like to comment on any of the above, please get in touch!