By Nigel Walley
The Canvas project has come in for a lot of criticism in the market over the last few months. Some of it, deserving and some of it self-serving. However, I am concerned that few people seem to be looking at Canvas from the point of view of the consumer, who is already struggling to make sense of an increasingly confused TV market.
At the beginning of the Canvas project, the BBC made two statements which made sense from the consumers’ point of view. Firstly they said that, while there was good provision of TV VOD in the pay arena, the market had failed to provide a solution for the ‘free TV’ market. Now, while this was essentially a supplier-led argument (there was no research showing a groundswell of demand), they made the reasonable, and essentially Reithian, statement that it was incumbent on the BBC to step in and provide a solution where market failure had occurred.
The second point made was that, where TV VOD had been provided in the pay arena (by Virgin, and BT Vision), it had been configured and presented in a way that was essentially ‘platform-centric’. Using TV VOD made us feel good about the platform brand (ie Virgin) not the channel or programme brand. Canvas was an opportunity to create a ‘broadcaster-centric’ experience that made us feel good about broadcast channel brands. We need to look at both those statements in light of what has happened.
Firstly, the market failure question. When the first principles of the Canvas project were laid out in 2007, the statement that ‘the market had failed to provide a solution for TV VOD’ was true – there was no TV VOD for those customers who didn’t want to pay a subscription, and there were no announced plans for future products. However, the Canvas project has been tortuously slow, and since 2007 the world has changed. By the time Canvas /YouView launches in mid-2011 it will be just another product in an over-supplied market for TV VOD devices serving the non-subscription ‘free TV’ market. As I write, there are already 7 or 8 devices on sale in the UK that can deliver a specially designed, ‘big screen’ TV version of the BBC iPlayer. These include Freeview and Freesat boxes that are on sale in Tesco, John Lewis and M&S. That is not market failure.
The ‘Connected Device’ manufacturers are also delivering TV VOD. Every new Sony TV screen, and BlueRay disk player has iPlayer and YouTube built in and it is likely that the same will also be true for every Samsung, LG and Panasonic device. On top of that, Every PS3 ever sold in UK can already access iPlayer. Before Xmas, many of these same boxes will also have access to a ‘big screen’ ITV Player, Demand Five and LoveFilm. It is clear that these innovations have met the original Reithian need to distribute BBC content into the ‘free TV’ arena.
Not only do all these innovations give a lie to the canard repeated by the consortium members this week, that ‘Canvas will deliver VOD into the free market’, but they will actually compete against Canvas and make its success even harder to achieve. All this has occured before the launch of another, even scarier Canvas competitor, Google TV. With all these innovations, it is not inconceivable that there will be over a million devices with free TV VOD in the market before Canvas launches. Canvas can only justify itself, and survive commercially, if it delivers something significantly different and compelling into a market already oversupplied with TV VOD services. This leads us to look at the second statement made at the outset of the project.
The idea that Canvas would provide a broadcast-centric way of presenting VOD was based on the notion that ‘the platform is designed and owned by companies that understand content.’ It spoke of a service in which the needs and interests of the free-to-air channels and their brands, would be brought to the fore. This would benefit the broadcasters and provide clarity for the consumers who recognised and understood those brands. This is where the consortium has been in greatest danger of failing the consumer.
At the outset, the Canvas project was put into the hands of many of the teams who had launched PC VOD ‘players’ for the broadcasters. These were people who had built different and competitive brands to the broadcast brands that Canvas was meant to protect (think iPlayer, ITV NetPlayer, 4OD Player). It seems that in the early days of the project, these teams were more interested in solving how to put their player brands onto TV, than working out how to use VOD to build strong broadcast brands. In this model, a consumer looking for catch-up Eastenders or Coronation Street would use a YouView branded EPG to access an iPlayer or ITV NetPlayer branded service to find a programme originally delivered by Freeview. Over seven days and they would be directed to SeeSaw. In this world, each VOD team was responsible for designing their own VOD areas, menu structures, and log-ins for their own players. Given that ‘YouView’ is already an unnecessary extra brand in a market struggling to understand Freeview, Freesat, Seesaw, Fetch, and 3View, the early design outcome would have beens a cacophony of conflicting brands and EPG designs. Most importantly it would have represented a failure of the consortium’s responsibility to deliver against the second promise to the consumer – a simple, broadcast-centric outcome.
Now it must be said that Canvs/YouView is likely to be the only player in the short term with catch-up content from all the free-to-airs. Beyond that, the only thing that can justify the Canvas investment, in an already oversupplied market, is if the design and presentation of the whole TV experience is a breakthrough of consumer clarity. The service needs to point the way towards a 21st century channel brand experience, not be a vehicle to let the VOD teams build non-linear empires. My feeling is that common sense is breaking out, and that this is achievable. (Particularly with the idea of an EPG that you can go backwards into yesterday with). But it will involve formally deciding that the PC player brands have no role on TV where there is an existing player brand (eg YouView, Sky or or Virgin). That is a big emotional step to take for many of the VOD teams, but crucial if Canvas is to succeed. We will also have to resolve how YouView relates to Freeview and Freesat in the consumers’ mind. At the moment, it feels like the three organisations are competing against each other, not co-ordinating towards a single view of the future of ‘free TV’. None of this helps the consumer and all of this is occuring at a time when the device manufacturers are looking to increase their consumer profile with devices that offer branded content services as well.
On behalf of the consumer, someone with a brand marketing hat on, (and no career path in VOD player development) needs to step in and clear this mess up.