What The Hell Is Google TV?

By Nigel Walley – Augst 2010

So Google and Sony have jointly announced the launch of Google TV – a range of set top boxes running a version of Google’s Android software. Google have also announced a range of other box launches in the US before Xmas.  You may have seen the press notices about this, and we would like to offer an explanation and opinion on its importance.

First thing is to understand the background landscape.  Broadly, there are three types of competitor in the TV market at the moment: the pay operators (like Sky and Virgin) who make their own boxes and software; the set top box manufacturers who are making Freeview and Freesat boxes with all sorts of fun stuff added over-the- top of broadcast  (sometimes called the ‘over the top’  or OTT  boxes); and the device manufacturers, like Sony,  who are desperately trying to grab ownership of the TV experience in the home with a device centric strategy.  Google TV has relevance for both the OTT and device manufacturers.

At the moment, the OTT phenomenon is being driven by some box manufacturers (like Humax and NetGem) and by service providers like Fetch (who  use a NetGem box).  None of them has a great heritage in making great software or interfaces, so Google TV represents a potential new bit of software to use in the next generation of their boxes.  This must be attractive given that is it free to use, and is supported by the weight of Google’s R&D team.   The fact that it gives Google software a route onto TV is important, but secondary.  The only problem, in the UK of course, is that this puts Google TV in direct competition with the other group developing a free-to-use bit of set top box software – Canvas.    Google vs the BBC’s Canvas would be a great head to head bit of competition were it not for the fact that they are both so desperately late to market.

For the device manufacturers like Sony, on the other hand, Google TV could offer them a way out of a problem of their own making.  The device manufacturers are connecting all their devices to the web and trying to create interfaces and on-demand packages that are available without subscription.  However, right now their offerings are very clunky and have no intelligence because the device manufacturers have no experience of putting together ‘services’. The current crop of connected devices (screens and BluRay players) are a shambles of incompatible consumer interfaces and remote controls.   The way to view Google TV’s deals with companies like Sony, therefore,  is not necessarily as a ‘web-on-TV’ initiative, but as a Sony initiative to make their connected TV devices more intelligent.

But Google may not even be able to mop up all the device manufacturers.  Samsung have just announced a deal to work with Tivo to launch DTT PVRs.

However, the key element to recognize with Google TV is that this is another ‘future TV’  initiative which fails to integrate broadcast into the emerging consumer experience. Yes, it will supercharge the search function on any TV system using it.  It will add functionality to EPGs (eg search) and the on-demand environment but will do very little for the core experience that most people have of TV – watching a live channel.   The consumer  outcome on one of these emerging ‘device-led’ systems is very fragmented – and will continue to be, even with Google’s input.   On these devices, it is impossible to move seamlessly from a broadcast show into the related catch-up shows (because there is no connection between broadcast metadata and on-demand data) or even onto the EPG and back.   This is what the BBC Vision Multi-Platform team call ‘flowing audiences’ between content.  It is a compelling vision of how broadcast, catch-up and red button content can be fused into a cohesive whole in this new IPTV fuelled TV world.   However these new device based systems, which will use Google, view each content type as separate and distinct, requiring the consumer to launch a different app each time they want to move from one to another.  It is not clear that they even recognise the idea of interactive content within broadcast.   It is a PC experience writ large, not a TV experience.  It is most certainly not consistent with the type of TV future that the interactive teams in the UK have been trying to achieve over the last few years.

This has to be viewed in the wider context of a battle for the soul of TV between technology and broadcasters.    There are groups of technology people around the world who are working on a vision of TV that largely ignores the primary role of broadcast.  They tend to be people from an internet engineering background who have been put in charge of TV projects.   These people are creating a vision of an ‘on-demand’ and ‘device’ centric TV experience, which is an outcome based on thier personal preferences not research into the mass audience.

In this world, the programme brand takes over from the channel brand as the primary organizing device, and the web as the primary distribution context.  A seemingly un-connected announcement this week from the BBC, about the iPlayer now connecting with Facebook, makes this point.  The BBC on-demand team have not yet successfully connected their catch up TV with Sky, Virgin or BT Vision, (through which 15M homes watch their broadcast channels) but FM&T have achieved a ‘breakthrough’ with a social media site.  These people are building what they personally want, and are not creating a TV future that has relevance to the mass of the current TV audience.  (The astonishing thing is that senior TV management in broadcasters like the BBC, are letting them do it).

In the UK, where innovation has historically been led by the platforms,  we have an opportunity to create a completely different approach, in direct competition to the Google TV / Sony vision of the future.  This is dependent on the TV platforms (Sky, Virgin and the Canvas group of companies) launching the next generation systems in which broadcast is central to the experience.    This experience should recognizes that the channel is the primary navigational device that consumers understand, and would include features that lock broadcast into the future, such as ‘next generation red button’,   ‘jump to VOD from broadcast‘, and  ‘play-over from the EPG’ in creating  a new interactive consumer experience.  In this light, Project Canvas has an opportunity be the pre-eminent example of a broadcast centric platform – designed to show what the future looks like from a channel controller’s point of view.  But they need to deliver against this promise, not get sucked into a ‘me-too’ apps-centric strategy like Sony, or Samsung.

We have to ask is could Google TV be good for UK broadcasters?  The answer is probably not, but in the same way that Hulu and Joost weren’t good for broadcasters – and they were seen off.   So it will be possible to minimize the impact of even Google in this world, if the broadcasters act in a co-ordinated way.  However, this is where it gets tricky.

Five have broken ranks already,  launching a Demand Five app on Sony TV,  and Channel 4 have broken ranks with the YouTube deal.  So, we are fast approaching a situation where UK broadcasters are unable to act in concert to achieve a broadcast friendly outcome.    Decipher believe that broadcast channels in the UK need to decide which camp they want to play in, because it will be impossible to support both platforms and devices in a single country. (It is important to note that in countries like Germany, with very weak platforms broadcasters may have to work with the device-led OD offerings to achieve significant roll-out of their catch-up content).

It is Decipher’s contention that the most commercially viable future for a commercial broadcaster is in the type of integrated future provided by the existing TV platforms.  However, the platforms have to deliver the required functionality to do this, and they need to do it in a consistent, integrated way between them.   This will require them to talk to each other about functionality that is used by broadcasters across all platforms.  In the past they have failed to do this, as anyone working in red button will tell you.  If the platforms want to fight off the Google TVs of this newly emerging world, they need to learn how to co-ordinate on the development of broadcast-centric functionality and do it very quickly.

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