Our view on YouView

In a revelation that will probably strike terror into the heart of my bosses here at Brodies, a few years ago I actually applied to be on The Apprentice.

I didn’t get asked to partcipate, presumably because my CV didn’t make enough wild claims about having “invented electricity” or “cured cancer”.  I mention The Apprentice because its star, Lord Sugar, is the chairman of YouView, which was finally launched yesterday – around 2 years behind the original schedule.

What is YouView?
YouView is a free UK internet protocol television (“IPTV”) service sponsored by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Arqiva, BT and TalkTalk, combining the UK’s freeview digital channels with on-demand programming. It hopes to appeal to the 13-15 million British households unwilling to pay for TV from BSkyB or Virgin Media. To date the interested parties have spent a total of £70m on the YouView project.

YouView is being made available in two ways:

  • From retailers with no further subscription payments necessary. They will begin stocking set-top boxes later this month, made by South Korean manufacturer Humax and priced at £299.
  • From internet service providers BT and Talk Talk as part of one of their broadband packages. It’s understood that these BT and Talk Talk offerings will include a set-top box costing significantly less than £299.

Lord Sugar was brought in to front the stalling YouView project last year, presumably on the grounds that he “understands” set-top box technology (via Amstrad’s involvement as a supplier of set-top boxes for Sky Digital) and also that he “understands” television.

Both of these propositions are open to debate – BSkyB became Amstrad’s sole customer, to the extent that there was a takeover in 2007, while I think it’s fair to say that the format of The Apprentice is very tired and in serious need of a revamp (as an aside, if you are interested in the legal aspects of TV formats, you may wish to read an article I wrote on the subject for the Law Society of Scotland Journal a few years ago). 

Certainly, the industry consensus is that the launch of YouView has been rushed to co-incide with th Olympics, with set-top boxes still undergoing beta testing as I write.

On a superficial level, YouView has been accused of recklessness in launching a major brand that could be considered confusingly similar to the existing international online video-sharing service YouTube.  Unsurprisingly, the present status of the “youview” mark seems unclear, with the UK Intellectual Property Office listing it as “Opposition Outstanding” – meaning that somebody or something is objecting to it. 

There have also been strong suggestions led by Sky and Virgin Media that the service is an anti-competitive cartel.  These complaints have been (provisionally) refuted by Ofcom.  The introduction of Sky’s NOW TV as one of two launch “content partners” (the other being Scotland’s digital media company STV) looks like a gesture to defuse these concerns, but they are not likely to vanish.

On a technical level, there remain serious questions about the viability of such a content-rich offering. Will UK broadband be up to the task?  Will average households have internet connections physically close enough to their television so that the Wi Fi-less YouView box can be connected to the internet?  Will a lot of customers unwittingly watch too many programmes and incur substantial costs? A quick look at YouView’s terms and conditions  shows a prominent “health warning” regarding broadband limits, with Clause 7.3 also stating:

Your internet usage is subject to the terms and conditions which your internet service provider applies to your use of its services. You should be careful that you do not exceed any cap on use of your broadband connection which applies to your broadband account with your internet service provider. If you are not sure whether or not you are subject to any cap on use of your broadband connection you should check with your internet service provider.

Has YouView missed the boat?

In addition to these concerns, there is also a suggestion that YouView has left it too late to enter a marketplace already crowded with catch-up services (such as the iPlayer and ITVPlayer), and digital channels available on Freeview. Critics claim that YouView’s originally innovative features – such as an electronic programme guide (“EPG”) that allows users to scroll back seven days to access a catch-up service – are no longer so revolutionary. Indeed, some commentators go as far as to claim that “second screening” will render the EPG obsolete.  And will the BBC, ITV, BT et al actually want to completely back a service that may eclipse their existing catch-up TV offerings?

I will leave you with the views of outgoing Director General of the BBC Mark Thompson, who on 18 June attended a “Valediction”, or farewell meeting, with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to discuss his achievements over the past eight years and the future of the BBC.  When asked by the Select Committee if YouView had missed its commercial window, he gave an interesting answer:

The key thing is IPTV turns out to be quite difficult to do. Google and Apple are two of the most successful and most powerful technology companies in the world. I think if they were here today they would accept that neither Google or Apple are yet satisfied that, despite the fact they have been working very hard on this, they have yet found a killer solution. I believe that the philosophy we are bringing to bear with YouView, which I have had a significant part in formulating, which is essentially that people will want this device or want a television-like experience.”

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