An Open Letter To Our Friends at Sky

By Decipher –

070716 Decipher SquareDear Friends At Sky

As you know, we at Decipher love few things more than a new set-top box, and – if there isn’t a full-scale launch to talk about – then the next best thing for us is to ruminate on what might be coming down the track.

Our interest was piqued by a report on a potential new Sky box in last week’s The Telegraph (who, coincidentally, first broke the news last April of your Project Ethan development initiative). This new article speculated that you would bring forward the release of a new set-top box to this spring – a whole nine months to a year before we expected to see its arrival in UK living rooms. This was partly driven by their claiming that the internal name for Ethan was once “Project 2016”.

Energised, we took to Twitter to ask – and Graham McWilliam, your Group Director of Corporate Affairs, gave nothing away when he replied to one of our tweets by saying that Sky “is always seeking to improve customer experience through innovation” (pointing to the example of bring the Sky+ Replay feature to the UK from Sky Italia, which we at Decipher are quite excited about). He concluded by saying that the “rest is speculation”.

We have heard nothing since. In the absence of a concrete confirmation or denial from Sky, we thought we would write down what we hope you are doing – a wish list if you like.  Its what we like to call the ‘you would have to be mad not to be building this’ functionality list for all new platform developers. We are conscious that this box has to take Sky into the next generation of TV – what we call the ‘Connected & Converged’ era – so there can be no half measures with this. You have taught us to ‘believe in better’ so here is what we believe would be better:

The important thing to stress right at the beginning is that we are expecting a two-part, staggered delivery of fun new things. Firstly we expect some form of new operating system (OS) will get uploaded onto as many of the existing boxes that can take it. We expect the ‘OS only’ option will deliver as much of the new functionality as possible. Then, at some point near year end, we are expecting a complete new set top box . We are guessing that a new box is needed because the existing boxes can’t do half the fun stuff we want; and of course we are a generation away from full ‘cloud TV’ when we can do away with STBs completely.

We are expecting this new box is really going to end up more of a ‘media server’ than a PVR, with a significantly souped-up technical spec: more tuners, better processes, open standards software and a larger local PVR memory. The software bit of this is easy, as Freesat have shown the way. This needs to include a fully HTML5 Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) with full personalisation functionality (a dramatically enhanced ‘Favourites’ function, ‘individual’ options, personalised recommendations etc) and ‘rich media’ graphical presentation. Your EPG has to look, feel and behave’ cooler than Netflix’. Right now it still looks like ‘software’. This next-gen box has to deliver ‘media’.

To this end, we would like the new rich media EPG to includes banner advertising – as with the latest designs for your tablet app. You need the ability to promote new shows and give key advertisers the chance to associate themselves with content . This could include allowing programme marketers to do a ‘whole page take-over’ on the Sky EPG for the launch of a big new show (we know YOUR marketing people would love that too for the next launch of Game of Thrones ) or allowing brands to sponsor content areas in the system.   An HTML5 interface on an internet connected box makes this easy to do. The EPG is becoming the most important piece of media in the market, it needs to behave like one and let commercial money in.

We also want loads more tuners. Your most recent box, the Sky+HD 2TB box, has the ability to record 350 hours of high definition (HD) content or just under 1200 hours of standard definition (SD content): the largest PVR memory in the UK market at the moment.   But it only has two tuners, one short of Virgin’s TiVo personal video recorder (PVR).  That really doesn’t help on a Saturday or Sunday evening when we want to record five things at once.

We’re telly heads at Decipher so more tuners – somewhere between six and ten – would be great. The TiVo ‘Roamio Plus’ and the new Comcast box in the States have six – allowing a person to watch and record one programme whilst simultaneously doing really interesting things with another five. Even the humble litte EE box in the UK has four.  Even better would be more intelligent tuners. We like the fact that in the US, DISH have reconfigured their satellite re-transmission of the 4 major networks so that all 4 can be recorded using a single tuner. It opens up huge possibilities. EE do a similar thing with the Freeview channels on their 4 tuner box in the UK allowing up to 20 to be recorded at the same time. Finally, we want tuners that can transcode on the fly – creating IP  versions of live linear broadcast channels that can be streamed anywhere in the house over wifi!

Channel changes – Clearly the box needs to be at least 4K friendly (maybe even one tuner playing at 8K) as we are anticipating you launching the first 4K sports channel in the UK at some point to co-incide with the 2016 rights acquisition. Sky has a great opportunity to be the first to be able to put 4K channels on the nation’s screens (if not the first to do 4K OD content), perhaps as part of an ultra premium package. In the meantime, the new OS should offer me 4K movies in the Sky Movies On Demand area (like Netflix are offering in our Panasonic 4K screen). These assets are starting to appear in the market so we want them in our Sky box. We’ve bought the 4K TV, and now we want something to watch on it.

In terms of the channel line up, we want this increased with the inclusion of IP delivered channels. Some will be new ones (small niche players) , and some will be existing ones that will swap to IP once they can get it into your box. (We know lots of mid sized channels are looking at this). The key thing is that have to be able to retain their existing EPG position if they make the switch to IP. Oh, and by the way, we want the system to be able to receive unicast AND multi-cast IP channels so you need to sort your fibre network out. We need to be able to record the IP channels on the PVR of course.

Obviously, moving their Sports channel to IP would deliver BT a massive cost saving as they would be able give up the satellite fees they pay on your platform and standardise the distribution of the channel across all platforms. (We recognise you may not have ‘reducing BT’s costs’ at the heart of your strategy at the moment), however we expect all sorts of fun IP streaming options to be included in the new service.  Your investment in Elemental Technologies late last year provided some clues here.

We also want you to pick up some of the learnings from the BBC’s connected red button initiative.  They have shown that allowing a broadcast channel to have ‘branded sub-menus’ and ‘contextual overlays’ allows a new generation of interactive content to be brought to screen.  Some of the execution is clunky but there is something very positive at the heart of the connected red button initiative that you need to copy.   The ability to dynamically link linear broadcast content with short and long form on-demand content is revolutionary. Its what the red button old timers (of whom there are a few at Decipher) wanted all along.  The weaknesses in the BBC work is that it is a single broadcaster initiative and therefore loses impact with viewers.  It also clashes with a platform’s mini EPG and ‘Now & Next’ bar wherever it appears. You have the opportunity to improve on this functionality; to integrate it in with your own EPG presentation; and most importantly to offer it to all broadcasters (for a commercial consideration no doubt). Your platform needs to be the place where the nature of a broadcast channel in the 21C can be explored and defined.

Another neat trick we want the box to have is the ability to deliver ‘linear VOD’. The old Homechoice box (may it rest in peace) had linear music channels that were actually made up of individual VOD assets played out in a line. It was brilliant and a decade ahead of its time.  These channels had an EPG channel listing but you could jump forward and back in the content line up and save individual music videos to ‘Favourites’ creating ‘playlists’. You could also go into the 8000 video archive and add to these playlists which could then be played out as a linear ‘channel’.  We want this for music videos and for TV programmes in the VOD archive.  It would allow channels like ITV3 to link a linear programme line-up to a deep VOD archive. You see one Marple episode you like on the channel, and you can click through to 10 more like it. Heaven!

Vidzone on Playstation goes one better, offering ‘playlisting’ AND ‘jukeboxing’  – where you can randomly line up videos to play in a channel without playlists. They both did this ten years ago and it predated audio services like Spotify.  Its high time this functionality was back on TV.

We come of course to the issue of storage. The ability to record huge numbers of programmes at once demands a larger memory. Again looking Stateside, the TiVo Roamio has a 3TB memory – which, based on your own predictions, would allow for the storage of about 450 hours of HD content. Anything that could match or better this would be greatly appreciated, unless – of course – you choose to go in a slightly different direction in relation to content storage. Your desire to sell us digital copies of movies would suggest you need a more flexible storage and access solution.

The ability to store recorded content remotely in the cloud must be on the table – a form of cloud PVR that would resonate with consumers as a “Dropbox” for TV. This could be offered at a premium – the ability for your subscribers to store 2TB’s worth of recorded content on the local PVR memory, plus the option (perhaps for an additional £5 a month) to have access to an additional 5TB or 10TB of remote storage for recordings.

We could then “pull” this content to a device of our choosing later on. Even better, though it may be a long shot, would be the ability to not just stream but download these recordings to a mobile device’s local memory to be watched offline and potentially away from the home broadband network. This would work much in the way your premium Sky Go Extra service works at the moment for selected VOD content. In terms of the Intellectual Property challenge, it must be possible to allow the system to identify content that can and can’t be recorded to the cloud and allocate recording space accordingly? Like KPN in Holland, you must be big enough to bully this one through? There’s no point having your reputation in the market if you don’t live up to it now and then.  Dropbox-like functionality has arrived in TV, the lawyers are going to have to work it out.

It goes without saying (but we’re going to) that the box must include a ‘start-over’ functionality like the new EE box. This gives us instant rewind to the start of a show on 10 or so live channels of our choice.  The box uses PVR memory to buffer all the channels to create the Start over cache.  Consumers love this functionality when we show them, but lets be adventurous and really blur the lines between PVR and VOD. Both your current VOD system and the EE box have shown that on-demand content works so much better off the hard drive (pushVOD) rather than over a network (pullVOD). Recording content to deliver catch-up is so much better than OTT apps, so let’s have a PVR centric approach to on-demand. Let’s take what Dish Networks have done with Primetime in the US and blow it out of the water.  A lot of the broadcasters concerns over this can be assuaged with better presentation of the assets, and sympathetic treatment of the broadcasters programme and channel brands.

From a presentational point of view, this new start over service could best be delivered if you merge Catch up and PVR content into a single timeshift zone. Let’s really blur the lines between recorded and on-demand, with branded areas for the major broadcasters which combine their catch up shows, and others we choose to record. Let’s further blur it by making sure that all recorded and catch up shows have full pictures and metadata, so that the on-screen presentation of on-demand AND recordings is ‘Netflix quality’.

Now clearly the BBC aren’t going to give you the rights to do any of the above with their content, so we recommend carrying on doing what you are currently doing on the iPad app – leaving a big, black and pink coloured hole everywhere where there is meant to be BBC content. Most importantly, you need to fight off all those BBC requests to plug iPlayer into the box unless it is relegated to an apps area, and then only if they also give you all the same on-demand content for the main ‘Sky managed’ catch up area. Give viewers both options, then we can really see which ones viewers choose.

Apps – yes we want apps but we want you to be REALLY judicious about which ones you let in the box. Don’t let the BBC fill the apps area with their varied ‘News’ and ‘Sports’ TV apps. We all know that nobody uses them. Only let organisations who deliver Sky quality entertainment outcomes, that aren’t competitive with your core services into the box. YouTube, Vevo, Curzon, and a couple of others at best. It then leaves a difficult decision on whether you want to let Netflix in like Virgin did. Our research shows a remarkably high cross over between Sky Movie customers and Netflix users. You might might as well keep them in your box if they are going to use it – but control the log-in details yourselves.

Shor-form content – We want a function on the box that allows short-form video to be hosted in a way that supports linear channels. If I want to watch clips of XFactor, its mad that I have to turn off the TV and go to my tablet for YouTube. Each major broadcaster could be given a really cool short-form pushVOD area in their timeshift zone (see above), and presented under their own brands, to host programme clips in a brand controlled way.  Even better if I could jump into this short form area from the red button overlays we mentioned.   This could be a half-way house towards YouTube and be plugged into the dynamic advertising solution that you are creating for long form VOD.  The next 90 second Cadbury’s Gorilla advert could be hosted in this area and supported by banner advertising in the movie area.

Finally, to the home network. A good start to creating a ‘whole home’ TV service would be a combined tablet app. You have too many apps and we are tired jumping between the Sky+ app and the Sky Go app when we select ‘watch on iPad’ . We want one app to ‘rule them all’ but it has to be much better than the existing ones.  It has to dynamically recognise when we are on the home network or not, and present a menu that offers only the correct content available.  Secondly, it needs to be able to access any content that we have paid for that is in the Sky box in the lounge including linear, VOD and recorded. There is no point having recorded content on the PVR if I can’t access it from the iPad in a different room. The current app lets us see the recordings we’ve made in a nice list, but can’t watch any of them on a phone or tablet. This means you can’t claim to be ‘better’ because we can do this with other boxes. If we open the EE TV app, connected to our EE TV service, we can watch the recordings we’ve made on our EE TV PVR on up to four different devices (providing these devices are within the home broadband network).  The new Sky app must have a similar functionality. This means that it has to be ‘castable’ so that we can flick content on it, up onto any screen in our house. This means we can could pause a programme on one device, perhaps the living room television, and pick the programme up where it was left off on another screen around the home. This needs to happen in one of two ways – the Smart way and the Dumb way.

The Smart way – a TV ‘App’ – we want to put a Sky ‘platform app’ on the SmartTV in a second room and have it do everything that the tablet app can do, but just configured for a big screen, as well as talking to my tablet app. This means we will be able to see all the same pay channels, VOD and PVR content on the SmartTV screen that we can see on the box downstairs. (This is where all those tuners transcoding on the fly come in). You need the PVR in the lounge to be able to stream IP versions of broadcast channels around the wifi network in the house, to any of the multiple screens we want to watch our pay content on, including the Smart TV. If you owned your own network like Virgin, you could just about justify streaming this stuff off a server somewhere.  But you manage a bloody great media server in our lounge – you might as well use that and save all the network costs.

While there is a growing number of Smart TVs, most of us will also want to connect up  2nd and 3rd TVs that are, well, dumb (i.e. not smart). Such televisions shouldn’t be excluded as a potential screen to join our new whole home service.  Streaming sticks such as the Google Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire Stick (coming to the UK shortly), together with streaming boxes such as Now TV and Amazon’s Fire TV box could help here. But we actually expect you to give away free Sky-branded Roku sticks with every premium subscription – otherwise what was the point of buying into them?   Putting one of these sticks into very screen in the house, Smart or dumb, needs to be connected to the new media server PVR in the lounge.

Of course, we want to take as much of this with us when we are out of the house.  I want mobile rights, and even holiday rights – taking my Sky subscription with us to hotels and holiday homes.  Even better if you could organise some form of inherent VPN, so we can take this stuff overseas.  Our Direct Debit doesn’t stop when we go on holiday, so we need to be able to access what we pay for, wherever we are.  Its time this was resolved.

We know the combined impact of app and stick and multi-venue mobility might signal the death of traditional multi-room revenues, but it really creates a new, supercharged multi-room service – multi-room ‘on crack’ as we call it. Of course, being Sky we are expecting you to charge us for this – this is a wish list not a fantasy!

So that is our starter for ten list, which we fully expect the audience in the ether to add to over the coming days.  We at Decipher believe we’re entering a particularly exciting era of television innovation, with the potential for the latest generation of connected home media servers to be at the heart of a much broader entertainment content relationship with you. Though we understand you may be a tad busy, it would be wonderful if you would write soon and confirm when we can have it.

Yours in anticipation,

Your friends at Decipher

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