After years in the works, YouView has at last launched its web-connected set-top box service. But is it too little, too late? Andrew McDonald reports.
YouView’s launch this week brings to an end a tortuous development and long delays since the initiative was unveiled as Project Canvas in 2008.
But despite YouView chairman Lord Sugar’s insistence that the launch was a “great moment in British TV” and the service offers a “whole new way of experiencing TV,” the market has changed dramatically in the intervening years, with YouView no longer the groundbreaking proposition that it once promised to be.
What was demonstrated at the launch event at the London Film Museum yesterday was a competent piece of hardware – a slick interface and EPG that allow viewers to catch up on seven days of content, access the BBC iPlayer and equivalent VoD services from ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and search for programmes. But is it enough?
YouView’s top brass were keen to emphasise the potential the first-to-market Humax box offers and the development possibilities. Sky’s Now TV service and Scottish broadcaster STV are the next content partners to come onboard later this summer, while 300 more have expressed interest in being involved, members of the trade and national press were told.
“For us, this is just the start,” said YouView CEO Richard Halton (Sugar used less fortunate wording, describing it as “the carcass” of what was to come next). “Now we’re here, our ability to evolve the software, our content partners, our functionality are incredibly exciting. The box you take home today will automatically update and find new content and new features. This is a dynamic, evolving proposition. This is going to get better and better in the coming weeks and months.”
However, not everyone is so upbeat. Informa analyst Nick Thomas claims the launch is “way overdue” and notes that, with the first boxes not due to hit shops until later this month, YouView will still not be a mainstream proposition for consumers until the end of the year.
“Had it launched in 2010 or 2011 it would have been able to shape the market, but now it is another smart TV platform competing with offers from Freeview Plus, Sky, Virgin Media and TV manufacturers. The defining features of YouView – such as the backwards EPG – are no longer so revolutionary. And we still need to know if the platform actually works,” he said.
Olivier Wolf, a media industry veteran and partner at telecoms advisor Greenwich Consulting, agrees: “For many this was an underwhelming launch coming two years too late. Had this launched in 2010, the service would have been a clear success. Once dubbed the ‘next-generation Freeview,’ YouView has been heavily backed by big-hitting industry players. But for all its bells and whistles, YouView has a lot of competition to overcome in the coming months.”
Although YouView’s impact on the market would have been more pronounced if it had come in on schedule, arguably its launch is still well-timed to capitalise on a growing appetite for OTT services like Netflix and LoveFilm and surging connected TV sales.
Phil Walder, MD of Connect TV – an organisation that lets content owners offer live streaming and on-demand services through HD Freeview boxes – welcomed the launch. “YouView is good for us, as anything that increases the number of HD Freeview boxes in UK homes increases the number of people able to access our services,” he says.
Connect TV launched its IPTV service with an initial line-up of 45 internet-delivered channels in February 2012, leveraging the latest standard of Freeview HD that came out last April. Research commissioned by Freeview, and carried out by Futuresource Consulting, this week claims “almost every home in the UK will be able to access Connect TV powered services by the end of 2014.”
David Elms, head of media at KPMG, says its own research also shows “the appetite for online streaming services in the UK has been consistently on the rise, particularly among younger people.
“The growing awareness, usage and inclination to pay for content seems to indicate that YouView and other streaming services have got their timing right. The foundations for online streaming services to be successful appear to be set and these services will continue the evolution we are seeing in people’s viewing habits and reinforce the strength of television.”
On the issue of timing, both Lord Sugar and outgoing BBC director general Mark Thompson were yesterday keen to dispel criticism over YouView’s delays. The latter claimed the iPlayer was similarly held up “by a couple of years” so that it was right when it launched. Although it was not the first VoD service to be released, it streamed nearly two billion programmes to households in the UK last year, he added.
However, unsurprisingly, he did not also mention criticism relating to the corporation’s £36m overspend on bbc.co.uk during 2007/2008, the period in which iPlayer did finally launch.
Thompson was present at the event along with Channel 4 CEO David Abraham, and representatives from each of YouView’s other partners: ITV, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva.
Meanwhile, Lord Sugar downplayed YouView’s failure to manage a full commercial launch in time for the London Olympics. Although BT and TalkTalk’s YouView launch plans are still to be announced, he said it was a “fallacy” to focus on the games as YouView was “a television platform that’s going to be around forever.”
Lord Sugar also insisted the £70m (US$108.6m) that the seven partners had invested in YouView to date was “a cheap price for this great piece of technology,” and said the £299 asking price for the initial Humax box was also fair. Indeed, the first Humax-made FreeSat+ DVR box cost the same when it was released in 2008.
“Would I be surprised in two years time if there are boxes in the retail channels that will be £99? Not really. You know what it’s like in consumer electronics – as time goes by, prices will come down,” Lord Sugar said, adding that a non-PVR version of YouView that would be cheaper to manufacture was also being considered.
With its launch coming a week after the equally noteworthy Google TV finally announced its UK debut, YouView’s grand unveiling was not what its founders would have dreamed of when the idea was conceived four years ago. The multiple references to YouView’s brilliant simplicity during the launch also only emphasised the lack of stand-out features contained within the device and its difficult birth.
Yet with the industry increasingly moving towards IP delivery models and expectations no longer at a high, there could be life in the new box yet.