May 2011 – Nigel Walley
So because of Twitter, we are talking about regulating new media again. Apparently Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook man commenting on Twitter inspired legal frenzy!) thinks not. I have to confess I am with him on this. I can’t think of a single time the regulator or legal eagles has got a big call on emerging media right, and I speak from authority. I used to work for NTL.
The UK media authorities, when setting up the cable industry, thought it was a great idea to copy the US model. They created 50 regional cable licences, all across the UK. No one seemed to take into account that the UK landmass was roughly the size of one US state. They created 50 tiny, uneconomic businesses in a market that wasn’t even sure it wanted pay TV. NTL started the process of trying to stitch them together into a sensible company. It has taken the cable industry 15 years to solve the problem that the regulators originally created.
Two seemingly unconnected announcements this week bring this back to mind – the announcement by Arquiva that it was shutting the SeeSaw online video provider, and the announcement in this paper, that Xbox was considering establishing an open video player to aggregate catch-up content from the free to air broadcasters on the games platform. It doesn’t take a great intellectual leap to spot the link between these two announcements.
You may remember that the only reason that SeeSaw existed in the first place was because of another mis-cued regulatory intervention. SeeSaw was born out of the original Project Kangaroo – a JV between the major free to air broadcasters (FTAs) to create a single online player for their catch-up content. The whole industry juddered to a halt with amazement when the Competition Commission decided that the FTAs shouldn’t be allowed to build it. It was the most short-sighted, regulatory decision since the cable TV decision. After the decision effectively shut it down, the remnants of the Kangaroo project were bought by Arquiva. (Is it only me that finds it ironic that the company that swept in to save a drowning Kangaroo was Australian?) After they sold off Kangaroo’s assets, the FTA’s went on to launch the YouView project, which is a project to …erm…aggregate the online players of the FTAs. In many ways, YouView is similar proposition to Kangaroo, but this time via a set top box, not a PC. Which clearly is different…ish.
Now the problem is that nowadays, any TV platform worth its salt is building a companion online player with various related apps. For YouView rather than building one, merging SeeSaw into the proposition would have been screamingly obvious (Arquiva are partners in both and most of the content on SeeSaw came from the other YouView partners). The only problem is that YouView isn’t allowed an online player because the regulatory decision made on Kangaroo effectively prevented it from having one. So SeeSaw goes down, while YouView ignores the problem that it will be uncompetitive without one. Perhaps YouView could buy the SeeSaw equipment back again and store it, on the assumption that the regulator will eventually see sense.
A crazy situation, but a new problem is emerging back on Xbox. Xbox needs to create a TV player because of some technical problems that make it difficult to launch a FTA player on the platform. Trouble is, there is already a TV player aggregating catch-up content on Xbox that could do the job – Sky Player. It already has the on-demand content from UKTV, MTV and all the other channels I get on Sky). I really don’t want 10 different players just to get the full range of catch-up content I want, but the FTAs won’t give their content to the platforms’ aggregator players. The argument would be easier to make if Virgin would hurry up and get VPlayer onto Xbox, no doubt followed by a Freesat player. As an Xbox customer I could then just choose to use the aggregator from the TV platform I use… unless of course I am a YouView customer.
And anyway, iff Xbox create their aggregating player for the FTAs, are they not just recreating SeeSaw? Or is it YouView? Or Kangaroo, or something.
The best that can be said for the SeeSaw outcome is that it reduces the number of brands that a consumer needs to navigate just to get some free to air content is reduced by one. The fact that we have three different brands () competing for the free to air TV sector is a balls up that we can’t lay at the regulators door.
Between competing egos, brands, players the market for TV in the UK is a bloody shambles and I am bored of it.