By Nigel Walley – August 2010
Given you all know what I do for a living, you may wonder if it is possible for me to make a comment about digital TV as a ‘normal’ consumer. You be the judge. These comments are specifically about Sky as I have been a Sky consumer at home for fifteen years. However, you will see that they apply to Virgin and any other major platform.
The big question I keep asking myself at the moment is ‘Why do I keep turning Sky off’ ? Sky has ‘owned’ our TV screen for fifteen years. Apart from a bit of VCR/DVD action, if we were watching TV, we watched it through Sky. We played games on PS3 but we didn’t count this as TV. Even in the last couple of years, with the advent of PC VOD, we could rarely be bothered to watch TV on a ‘player’ because, if you have a decent TV screen, then a PC player does not match up. Increasingly, this is no longer the case.
A bit of context. At home we have a Sky HD box, a PS3 and a new Sony TV screen. The thing that started the rot was PS3. Previously, we watched lots of movies on Sky. Then, a few months ago, I got home one Friday evening to be told we were watching a movie with the traditional Friday night take-away. I sat down to turn on Sky Movies, only to be told by the boys that an HD copy of the movie had already been downloaded onto the PS3. I pointed out that we pay for Sky Movies, so this was an unncecessary incremental cost. Apparently the family were sold on the better functionality that PS3 offered and the better choice available. Whilst technically I could have argued against both points, I had already lost the debate as the film was ready to watch, so we turned Sky off and watched on PS3. On top of this, once the boys discovered the extra content and functionality on a BlueRay disc, the role of the PS3 as our main movie device was confirmed. A very odd state to be in – we turn Sky OFF to watch movies.
Now I am assuming that when Sky plug broadband into my box, and launch Anytime+, they will be able to compete against the main ‘movie’ bit of this pretty easily. I am expecting Sky movie VOD to be at least as good as the Virgin service so the PS3 should have a short window to enjoy its movie domination. I am intrigued to see whether the ‘extra content & functionality on PS3’ thing still has an attraction to the boys after the Anytime+ launch. I would like to see some of this stuff in the Sky service though? Why not put movie trailers for theatre release movies in there like on AppleTV. A brilliant service, and Sky would get paid to host them.
TV content is a bit more interesting, however. Our Sky+ box failed to record Dr Who one Saturday, but rather than panicking my eldest kid just said, don’t worry, we’ll watch on iPlayer. He flicked over to the PS3 and started a habit that hasn’t gone away. We now watch iPlayer on TV two or three times a week via the PS3. Each time, symbolically turning Sky off again, in the process. I know that Sky+ is meant to be Sky’s catch-up service, but it isn’t. Sky+ is Sky’s recording service. Most of the stuff we watch on iPlayer is stuff we hadn’t thought about watching until after transmission.
On top of this, we have now bought a Sony connected TV with all the clever ‘app’ thingies. The catch up TV services are patchy but interesting. The iPlayer one would be important if I didn’t already have it on the PS3, and the Demand Five one works really well but hasn’t got any interesting content. (I am assuming that the ITV Player is going to arrive on one of the devices soon, and we will definitely use that). The cumulative impact is ‘more reasons to turn Sky off’. This can’t be good news for Sky and they need to stop me doing it, even if all the content we are watching comes from the free-to-airs. Sky are meant to ‘own TV’ in our house. Making sure that catch up TV from the major FTAs is core to the Anytime+ outcome would solve this.
With Sky I would also expect to get all sort of ‘integrated functionality’ extra benefits. I want to be able to shortcut jump from broadcast BBC 1 into BBC1 catch up and back again (like on TalkTalk). I would expect VOD metadata mixed up with the broadcast metadata to create a really cool, integrated EPG. The experience of using catch up WITHIN the Sky system should be ten times as good as using the broadcasters own players. With my ‘work’ hat on though, the vibes that I hear from various parts of the industry lead me to think that these deals aren’t being done and it makes me nervous about whether I will be happy with Anytime+ with my ‘consumer’ hat on.
Our experience of the other connected TV ‘apps’ is mixed. The news and weather services are like watching paint dry, and seem to be a step backwards to the dark days of early red button interactivity. The Facebook and Twitter ones are clever but, configured as they are, they’re on completely the wrong device for services which are highly private and require lots of typing. However, I am not expecting them to stay configured as they are. I am expecting the distinction between broadcast and social media to blur a bit, in ways that I haven’t got my head round yet. I would like Sky to surprise me on that one.
The one TV app that we are using most on the connected TV should be the one that is least TV friendly – YouTube. Given the inherent poor quality video, this should be the last thing we want on our lovely new HD TV screen but, for some reason, we use it a lot.
We don’t watch YouTube INSTEAD of watching proper programmes. We use it around the programmes, and we use it in a way that is complementary to our YouTube use on PC. On PC we search for stuff and respond to emails with YouTube links in. On TV its a completely different experience. TV YouTube is all about sharing to a small group. When we have some time before a programme starts, or if we are waiting for Mum to join us, we flick on YouTube and the boys show me what they found on PC YouTube. We waste time around our programmes on YouTube.
The key thing for Sky is that this is another content type that we turn Sky off to use. But, having seen the way that Apple designed a version of YouTube to sit in AppleTV, I can see no reason not to be able to access this from within Sky? That way I wouldn’t have to turn Sky off. If YouTube was inside Sky, it could include functionality like alerts, to tell me when my programmes are starting. Sky could even control the content that I was able to access through it – locking out any full programmes or movies that might conflict with my subscriptions.
Now, most of the content that we are using on these other systems is free content, not pay, so I can see how this behaviour may threaten Sky’s core business model, but I don’t think it should. The difficult thing that I have come to accept is that I pay Sky as much for a functionality outcome, as a content one. The experience of using all the other players is very patchy, and completely unconnected to my use of broadcast – and it shouldn’t be. It should all be part of one big TV experience but someone has to tie it all together. Logically that should be Sky (or whoever your pay provider happens to be).
The irony, given that Sky is a pay content provider, is that I am saying ‘I will keep paying Sky, if it gives me really simple, functionality-rich, access to all the free content that I like’ – even if it is all available on my TV screen via other devices and systems. I want it all integrated into a really nice EPG, and I want the kind of integrated, interactive content that only a platform, in control of the complete experience, can give me.
Sky have to decide if they are happy for me to increasingly turn off Sky to get content on some other device, or if they want to be the company to control my free experience as well as pay. The strategy of the pay providers should be ‘to continually come up with ways to stop me turning off their service’. That may involve bundling in some unlikely services and content types in the future.
But I am a Sky customer….and that is what I want.