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01 January 2011

Jon Creamer on how 2011 will be the year in which TV convergence becomes a reality

2011 will be the year when convergence stops being just a TV industry seminar subject and becomes a reality in the UK's front rooms. This year, Virgin, Sky and Freeview will be joined by Apple, YouView, Google, Games consoles and TV set manufacturers in the battle to be the main box under the living room plasma. Jon Creamer reports on TV’s big bang moment

Sky, Virgin, YouView, Google TV, Apple TV, connected TVs, games consoles - the race is on for each platform, service or box under the TV to become more things to ever more people - a PVR, a catch up service, a video on demand service, a web browser, a social networking machine, a gaming console – and to become the player that effectively owns the front room television.

And it’s a race with so many disparate competitors because there are so many disparate reasons to be running in the first place. TV manufacturers want to differentiate their expensive sets from cheaper rivals and become service providers rather than simply kit suppliers; digital TV platforms need to solidify their position fearing that customers might cut the cord and opt for a “good enough” service through broadband; games console makers want to push their way into the front room and get mum and dad using them too and Google and Apple just want a piece of everything.

So it looks like 2011 is set to be the big bang year for the front room TV as viewers stop sitting back and waiting for the traditional channels to spoon feed them shows and become active, lean-forward users demanding video on demand as they fire off tweets, browse the web and check their Facebook status – all on the same front room plasma.

Well, maybe. It’s well documented that more and more people, particularly the young, are multi-tasking while watching the TV. Sending Tweets or using Facebook on a PC, tablet or smart phone while watching a show is already well established.

According to Futurescape’s Connected TV white paper, the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards saw 2.3m tweets about the show during the broadcast that were flashed up on a big screen on the stage throughout. “We’re already seeing a revolution in ‘social TV’ where viewers are using two screens – their TV and a laptop for instance – to watch TV shows while also interacting with their online social networks and getting extra information,” says YouView ceo Richard Halton. “I think that through apps these activities will quickly find their way onto the single TV screen as applications such as Twitter and Facebook are developed for YouView.”

But while most connected TV services plan apps for Facebook and other social networking activities, the jury is out on whether viewers will want them sharing screen space on the front room plasma or will prefer to keep them to the smartphone or tablet in their hand.

“The front room TV is shared and it’s a very communal experience,” says Fernando Elizalde, principal research analyst at research company Gartner. “It’s not a one-on-one television screen. If you’re in the main room sitting with family and interacting with your friends, that can be bothersome for the rest of the people watching it. What may happen is a companion screen that is in synch with the show you’re watching. So you’re having the social television experience on the companion screen while the main screen is not being impacted by a single viewer’s activity.”

How people end up using social networking apps on their TVs remains to be seen. At the moment, the main use of connected services is simple video on demand, particularly on connected TV sets. “Given where we are in the game, especially with a TV device, it’s going to be led in the early stages by the VoD services,” says Samsung UK’s content manager, Darren Petersen. “After all, it is a TV and people still want to be sitting back and watching TV content to begin with. Consumers understand it. They’re already using VoD on other platforms. In the UK the iPlayer led the way and educated the mass consumer. Consumers are comfortable with that form of consumption.”

VoD is set to increase, but even that will be an evolution rather than a revolution. “What people watch is traditional linear broadcast television. Under 10% of all viewing time is time shifted,” says Oliver and Ohlbaum Associates senior consultant David Cockram. “And the vast majority of that time shifted viewing is PVR time shifted. Only a very small amount is [pure] on demand. Even in Virgin homes, still less than 10% of what people watch is on demand.”  

Just because viewers will be able to demand so much more video on demand with their front room TV, it doesn’t mean they will straight away. “My view is a fairly conservative one but realistic and probably becoming conventional wisdom,” says Cockram. “In five years time, under 20% of all viewing will be on demand. And, under current trends, only 2% of all viewing - i.e. 10% of that on demand viewing, will be pure VoD.” With the rest being shows people have recorded on their PVR.
And that figure is based partly on the fact that pure video on demand has been around for a long time, both in the US and on Virgin in the UK, but has until recently, been a very small part of all viewing. “When it was Hollywood movies, HBO content etc the levels of viewing were tiny. What’s really driven the take up for on demand viewing is high quality content from the linear schedule. It’s people watching more BBC primetime shows they missed last night. It’s not watching box sets or Hollywood blockbusters. It’s UK produced content,” says Cockram.

As ever, content is king, and only those providers that offer the content the viewer wants, or who can partner with someone who offers that content, will thrive.

And that’s already looking like a problem for the nascent Google TV. Despite a tie up with Sony to build the TV sets and keyboard/remotes that it will run on, most of the major networks including NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS and Viacom have said they won’t be making their content available for the service. In the UK, it’s original UK content made by or for the major broadcasters that drives people to video on demand or catch up services, and any service that can’t provide this content, is facing an uphill struggle. “You can’t just throw a device out there that’s got an Internet connection,” says Samsung’s Petersen. “You need to treat each segment of the value chain in the right way. The people who own the content aren’t just going to hand it over to you unless it’s done in the right way.”

TV content aside, the great revolution the new services are offering is putting internet connectivity on to the TV. But the way they do that is one of the big dividing lines. Some have a completely open system like Google TV that will make the entire internet searchable with a browser. Others use an apps based system more akin to an iPhone that lets developers optimise internet applications for the TV platform. Which will prove most popular on the main TV screen is a question that’ll be answered over the next year or two. “We are taking a very different approach to Google TV which is essentially looking to put the internet on the TV screen with a full browser,” says YouView’s Halton. “Our belief is that consumers aren’t looking for that from their TV. YouView is about enhancing the TV experience and respecting the place the TV has in the living room as a shared screen that espouses warmth, and entertainment.”

An open system has the advantage of infinite possibilities, but there’s also the ease of use that comes with an apps based system. “Will the regular person have the will, patience and knowledge to peruse the Internet on these boxes,” says Gartner’s Elizalde. “They want it to be easy to access. Not necessarily limited but it has to be accessible and not complicated.”

With so many offering such a bewildering variety of services and ways to access TV, it’s likely there’ll be some thinning out among the various competing platforms and services, but unlikely that will lead to one dominant player. “There are too many major players in the marketplace for one box to really win out,” says Sony Computer Entertainment’s marketing director Alan Duncan. “The TV market will become more like the gaming market’s been for 30 odd years. We’ve always had competing platforms offering quite similar experiences. The broader TV market will start to see a similar scenario.” Consumers will pick and choose as they do now. “Realistically, we’ll end up with a number of different connected TV platforms, just as we have done for TV over the past few years with Freeview and Freesat and pay TV platforms via satellite and cable,” says Halton.
The real convergence will most likely come from the various platforms and services joining together and offering their services through one box. And the likelihood is, it’ll be the incumbent platforms with their name on the box.

“My view is there won’t be calls for cord cutting,” says Elizalde. “ I wouldn’t be surprised in the long term if most of these over-the-top services are integrated into the traditional pay TV services. If you want to get premium content you still have to pay for it. They will partner together because it’s easier for the consumer to access content that way.”                                                                                                 

Formerly known as Project Canvas, YouView is the platform being put together by the BBC, ITV, BT, Channel 4, TalkTalk, Arqiva and Channel Five. The platform’s first boxes, that will retail at around £200, go on sale from the middle of this year (though YouView admits that date could slip). Essentially, YouView is the connected TV version of Freeview, subscription free but this time combined with the last seven days’ catch up TV as well as on-demand services and interactive extras via a broadband connection. The platform won’t have a browser to search the web, but will allow developers to put together apps made specifically for the platform. Early apps will likely be video on demand applications from companies like LoveFilm as well as services like Skype, YouTube and Facebook. The boxes will also be PVRs. The EPG will incorporate catch up and PVR recordings so viewers can move backwards along the time line and forwards to select shows they want to record in future.

Essentially a standard TV with a broadband connection. Manufacturers like Samsung and Sony are leading a major push into developing and marketing their TVs’ connected abilities. By 2014 it’s estimated that 54% of flat panel TVs shipped globally will have internet connectivity and services. Up until now, many customers who bought connected TVs had simply not got around to connecting them to the net but, say the manufacturers, a lot of this was down to manufacturers instead concentrating on pushing their sets’ 3d capabilities instead of their connected ones. Connected TVs, like YouView and Virgin Media, work with a suite of apps developed specifically for them rather than going for a full on web browser experience. Samsung recently announced the one-millionth TV app downloaded globally from its app store with some of the most frequently downloaded apps in the UK being Lovefilm, iPlayer, Muzu.TV, Acetrax, Facebook and Twitter.

It’s already rolled out in the US but has already run into major problems over what content will be available as most of the major networks including NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS and Viacom have said they won’t be making their content available for the service. Google TV is the player that aims most fully to put the internet on to the living room TV. The entire internet will be searchable rather than limiting itself to an apps-based system where certain providers optimise their sites specifically for a particular platform, though Google TV will have apps as well. Google TV is pushing multi-tasking, the idea of splitting the screen as users wish so they can both surf the web, check Facebook and watch TV all at the same time. Users have to buy a new piece of kit, either a new TV that comes with qwerty keyboard remote, a box with a keyboard from Logitech or a Sony Blu Ray player/Google TV and qwerty remote combined.

Virgin Media’s new box, which went on sale late last year, extends the Virgin Media video on demand capabilities with a TiVo PVR recorder that comes with a 1tb disc and adds and a 10Mbps modem for VoD and online services. Like YouView, which launches later this year, the Virgin box, though connected to the internet, is not aiming to be a browser that can turn the TV into a PC screen. It will also offer apps created specifically for the platform through its own app store with Youtube, Twitter and ebay already available. The Virgin box’s EPG will also try and blur the distinction between live TV, catch up TV, recorded programmes and pure video on demand, with viewers scrolling along a time line and clicking on the shows they want or using search functions to find content. Like a standard TiVo machine, Virgin’s box recommends shows based on the user’s past viewing and shows can be rated by other Virgin viewers using the red button. Viewers can also build wish lists so the box can automatically record shows with a certain theme or featuring a certain actor or director for instance.

Sony’s Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s XBox are both pushing their respective consoles’ TV content capabilities. Most recently it was Playstation 3’s turn with the console adding ITV Player and 4oD to sit alongside the BBC’s iPlayer that users can already access through the console. Playstation 3s already have a web browser, access to Lovefilm downloads as well as other VoD services, live music video collections, links to personal photo album services like Picasa and a soon-to-launch music service along the lines of Spotify. Microsoft’s Xbox already has a hook up with Sky Player that allows its users to buy a Sky subscription and watch standard and premium Sky channels. Users can also download Hollywood movies through Xbox’s Video Marketplace and listen to music through

Sky is extending the scope of its Sky+ PVR with Sky Anytime+ that adds a large VoD service to its standard services with Hollywood movies from the Sky Movies collection as well as classic sports, entertainment, kids shows and docs. Sky is, for the moment, eschewing any of the internet apps that Virgin Media, YouView and other providers are also adding to their boxes and sticking to the straight VoD proposition. It also has Sky Player, another subscription offering, but one that can be used on other platforms aside from a Sky box like PCs and the Xbox. Users buy a subscription to the service, which lets them view Sky channels and its premium content.


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