YouView Boxes Are Like London Buses..

You wait years for one, then three arrive at once….

Nigel Walley – August 2012.   So YouView has finally launched, and having waited for years for our first box, there are now three different ones to play with down at iBurbia Studios.  We have a plain old vanilla one, bought in John Lewis; a BT Vision one; and a TalkTalk one.  This allows us to finally get our hands on the things and to ask some of the pressing questions. Namely, is it any good, is it important, and will it succeed?

Firstly, is it any good?   The ones we got our hands on are a shiny and expensive looking Humax boxes, which look every inch of the £300 being asked for them (well OK, £299). Straight out of the box there are some surprising omissions for a device launching in 2012.  No wifi was the first surprise, and no companion app at launch.  Makes it feel very 2010, particularly as the new Sky remote control app has launched this week.  On the plus side, the set up is remarkably simple, and all versions  worked. Interestingly, if you plug a plain old vanilla one into a BT broadband connection, it tries to turn itself into a BT Vision box at set up.  (We plugged our ‘simple’ box  into Virgin broadband to keep it in check!)

The menu design is consistent with the screen grabs that have been doing the rounds of the internet over the last few months and the look, feel and general usability are impressive.  On the ISP boxes, the ISP branding is restrained with the clear inference that this is BT Vision in a YouView box, not a completely new type of BT Vision box.

The backwards EPG works, where there is catch-up content available, but this is limited to the big channels.  The jump to the broadcast players from the EPG is smooth but there are some strange features.  The main one is that there is surprisingly little standardisation between the web players that you access through the backwards EPG.  The poor old consumer is confronted with different menu structures and navigational choices in each of the different broadcaster catch-up players.  To jump from ITV player to 4OD requires re-learning a new layout.

This was not the intention in the early scamps of the design and we were surprised that this was allowed.  It creates a slightly confused consumer outcome if you use content from different broadcasters frequently.  They should have at least insisted that the player functions and layouts were standardised, even if the colours and logos were different.

But there are some nice touches.  Scroll backwards in the EPG and find a programme you recorded earlier, and you can launch your recording from the EPG.  Very clever (and consistent with the current Decipher hobby horse that says that PVRs could be strong players in the mid-term connected future – see ‘Can PushVOD be the new PullVOD’).

The three different versions do differ slightly.  Obviously, the BT one has a BT Vision player in the on-demand menu.  The TalkTalk one, has a corresponding Talk Talk player.  Oddly, the major point of difference between the three boxes could end up being the amount of Sky content on each of them. All three have NOW TV, the pay as you go service, and of course, they all have the FTA Sky channels available as Freeview broadcasts.  But BT also has the right to include the Sky sports broadcast channels in their package, and TalkTalk have the remnants of the SkybyWire service to include in their player. It is going to be fun watching the marketing people describe their respective USPs.

One key thing to stress is what is NOT there – account set up or log-in.  YouView does not require you to set up an account on the web, or to register the box on set up. It is as free to use as a Freeview or Freesat box. This is great, however this does mean that it can’t meet some of the market’s unrealistic expectations about targeting or intelligence. Any targeting or connected experience will happen down at ‘player’ level, and there will be no sharing of log-ins, or data controlled by YouView centrally.  If the players eventually introduce log-in (they don’t currently require it on YouView) then a consumer will have to log-in to each player individually.

So, with these caveats, can it be important?  Mike Darcy of BSkyB has been quoted in the press recently saying that the SmartTV revolution shows how YouView was unnecessary and that the free market has solved the challenge of getting VOD into free TV platforms.  We have some sympathy for this argument, however, it does  ignore the fact that a second, and equally important, rationale for YouView  was showing  how a TV system could look and function if it favoured channel brands over the platform or device brands.

This was a chance for the broadcasters to show Sky and Virgin how to do it properly from the broadcasters’ perspective.  Having seen the outcome, our concern is that what started as a consortium project  of self-interested broadcasters has changed  over time. The team putting YouView together appear to have bunkered down under the flak and gone ‘native’ – adopting ‘platform’ mentality, like BSkyB or Virgin.   This means that YouView has things like VOD  genre menus  under the platform brand (eg ‘YouView Comedy OD’ or ‘YouView Drama OD’) which cherrypick the best content from all broadcasters and use it to bolster the YouView platform.  This is something that the broadcasters have fought BSkyB and Virgin to avoid, so putting them in their own platform makes no sense for a host of reasons.

Most importantly (and this is where it gets a bit complicated) we would also expect to see catch-up presented under channel brands not player brands.  (ie If I click on a BBC2 programme in the backwards EPG, I should get presented with a BBC2 branded programme page, not an iPlayer one).  If a platform was truly ‘broadcast-centric’ as was originally intended, it would minimise the role of player brands as well as minimising the role of the platform brand.   The reason this is crucial is that there is a growing belief (most definitely shared by us) that the rise of the player brand has damaged the channel brands in the last five years.

This highlights the second problem for YouView.  Not only has the core team gone native, but their primary contacts within the client broadcasters are the ‘Player’ teams, not the broadcast teams.  This means that they were never going to favour broadcast brands over player brands.  So we end up with YouView as a ‘platform’ view of the future, designed by web player people.  It jumps too quickly into the world of players leaving live broadcast behind, without easy routes back.  It is unfortunate that YouView was designed just at  the point when a sensible debate is breaking out within the broadcasters about the destructive impact of their player brands on their wider brand franchises.  (See ‘ Its Time To Look At The Player Brands Again’). YouView should be a stake in the ground that says:  ‘We have remembered we are broadcasters!  On-demand should enhance and complement the core broadcast business not compete with it’.

So will it succeed?  We have never understood the imperative of launching before the Olympics that led to these boxes being let out into the market early.  People buy screens not boxes for sports events. The real deadline that mattered was Digital Switch Over (DSO) in April.  That was the last moment where there were large numbers of consumers without any form of digi-box.  So internet connected Freeview boxes and Smart TVs have swept up lots of the DSO generated low hanging fruit, and consumers will be hard pushed to understand what YouView offers that those two propositions don’t.   This is a shame because, even with all our caveats about this not being friendly to broadcast brands, it is still the ‘least unfriendly’ of all the options on the market.   From a price point of view Lord Sugar’s comments about needing ISP subsidies highlight the fact that the box is not competitive at £299 – even if it does contain a really good PVR.  The ISPs are going to have promote this thing heavily to get it away in a market that neither needs or understands its USP.

Nigel Walley

Twitter:  @nwalley
Note:  If you would like to look at the new YouView boxes, please contact one of the Decipher team to arrange an Immersion session or  contact the iBurbia Studios team here to book a studio session at iBurbia.

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