Indies embracing the web and new platforms

3 02 2008

The growth of new distribution opportunities via the internet has prompted some independent production companies to find additional options for exploiting their content, while others are producing content specifically for the web.

Here’s a round-up of some of the key players so far:

  • Miles Beckett and Luke Hyams, the co-creators of LonelyGirl15, are rightly dubbed the kings of social networking drama. The duo have gone on to form LG15 Studios, with backing from Hollywood talent brokers Creative Artists Agency, deepening their relationship with Bebo by producing Kate Modern.
  • Veteran U.S. independent Mark Burnett Productions, best known for a slew of reality TV formats, has been actively syndicating derivative programming to web portals for a number of years. Its series Rock Star: INXS was offered via MSN, albeit as an enhancement / spin-off to the linear show. However, the company is getting more active with pure new media plays: last September it launched Gold Rush, an online reality game via AOL.
  • Ex-Disney chief Mike Eisner’s Vuguru was founded in March 2007 and rapidly cut through with Prom Queen, a scripted drama comprising 80 x 90-second minisodes, distributed via its own site , YouTube and Veoh (which Eisner is also backing).
  • U.K. indie RDF is currently developing Rough Cuts. a comedy portal featuring full-length download-to-own programmes from its own catalogues (RDF is a distributor, as well as a production company), other independents and, it hopes, under license from broadcasters. Last July, the company’s U.S. offshoot inked a licensing deal with Daily Motion.
  • Endemol – the company which brought the world Big Brother – was one of the first major indies to license its back catalogue content to U.K. IPTV service BT Vision, as well as to pure web plays, such as Joost and newcomer Next.TV. The company is also producing Gap Year, a web exclusive travelogue for Bebo. At the C21 Future Media conference in London late last year, Endemol’s Peter Cowley, managing director of interactive media, disclosed that its digital division was contributing between 10 to 20% of overall revenues.
  • FremantleMedia’s strategy focuses on marrying up excellent creativity, low budgets and profitability. The company – behind linear hits such as American Idol – owned by media conglomerate Bertelsmann subsidiary RTL Group, has a new platforms division overseen by programme syndication veteran Gary Carter. Aside from licensing deals, the company’s key new media property is web and mobile comedy channel Atomic Wedgie, an aggregation of younger-skewing short-form programmes which achieved nearly 3 million views via MySpace during Q4 2007. The company is working on an interactive drama format for syndication to web aggregators during 2008.
  • IMG and its television division TWI has established a fearsome reputation for global syndication (the business was built out of sports talent management) and boasts a programme catalogue of 250,000 hours of premier sports events (Wimbledon, the PGA Tournament and U.K. Premier League are among those it represents). The company has been developing content propositions for new platforms – albeit based on wobblier technology than today – as far back as 2003. The company’s Gamer.tv format (which enjoys the dubious distinction of being banned in China) was one of the first made-for-TV shows to be syndicated to web portals, such as MSN.
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The U.K. VOD market – nascent but growing

2 02 2008

Policy wonks, quango officials and broadcast executives met in central London last Thursday to debate the state of the U.K. VOD industry: offering perspectives on incumbent services, those soon to launch, rights management and pending regulatory changes.

Unsurprisingly, the first half dealing with audiences, programming and business models packed them in, while 90 minutes on regulation drove half the audience away, and left the other half in near coma.

Virgin Media’s charismatic Malcolm Wall, CEO of Content, hailed the success of VOD rollout on his platform, proclaiming that “the UK market is coming of age.” The service offers 3,700 of video content, including around 1,000 hours of catch-up TV from broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4. Just under half of Virgin customers use the service at least once a month (this compares with around 70% of Comcast subsribers stateside), with around 30% of views to catch-up TV. Some 270 million pieces of content viewed during 2007. His prediction that VOD viewing on the platform would soon outstrip linear viewing of terrestrial channel Five was built on with the further portent that 20% of UK viewing would be non-linear within the next five years. But most striking of all was his disclosure that subscription-based viewing is rapidly replacing pay-per-view.

Both Wall and BBC Future Media Group Controller Erik Huggers used their respective turns to plug the impending launch of a “10 foot” version of BBC iPlayer on the Virgin Media platform, due Q2 2008.

Channel 4’s Sarah Rose, Head of VOD and Channel Development, asserted that partnerships with TV platform partners Virgin, BT Vision and Tiscali TV were “fundamental” and responsible for generating the majority of views to the broadcaster’s 4oD umbrella brand. The biggest mindset change for C4, Rose said was developing approaches for customer relationship management, investing in software functionality and developing new approaches for compliance in an environment where the 9pm watershed is immaterial.

4oD online has an installed base of 1 million users (those who have installed the service software) and unsurprisingly the constituency is 60% male. More striking though was the suggestion that the most active of registered users skews female. Around two-thirds of online users are under 35. No surprises that comedy, drama (about a third of all viewing) and entertainment lead performance, but minority interest programming also does “disproportionately well”. The service is split between around 3,000 hours of (mostly free to view) archive – some of which can “engender loyalty to series” – 60 to 70 hours of new catch-up TV every week and around 300 films.

But there were two star turns at the event: Paddy Barwise, Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at the London Business School, and Roger Edmonds, a freelance journalist and one of the key figures behind UKNova, a BitTorrent site which specialises in British TV programmes.

“Calm down dears,” was Paddy Barwise’s opening remark, attempting to balance the boundless enthusiasm of incumbent providers with the reality check that for the overwhelming majority, linear TV rules. Barwise said that while announcements from major players were creating enormous developments on the supply side, but the demand side remained sluggish. Adding: “let’s have a bit of huimility about what will or won’t work, before throwing out too many babies with the bath water.”

John McVay of independent producer trade body Pact chipped in with the challenge that broadcasters may like to consider boosting spend on quality programme-making, before over-investing in technical platforms which were yet to prove themselves with mass audiences.

Roger Edmonds of UKNova threw down the gauntlet to U.K. broadcasters, promising that when they could fully meet the demand for British TV programmes that he sees from his users with a free service, he’d close his site down. With a nod to Project Kangaroo, the soon-to-launch on-demand joint venture between U.K. terrestrial broadcasters, he decried the scarceness of choice from traditional players.

Jeremy Olivier, Head of Convergent Media at regulator Ofcom issued the rallying call which cleared half the room, and devoted his piece to changes ushered in by the European Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which compels member states to move to more robust regulation of the VOD sector, including greater protection from content which may harm or offend vulnerable audiences. Ofcom has pulled together an industry panel to





Gimme more online video, just don’t make me pay

5 12 2007

U.K. law firm Olswang has published its annual Convergence Report, tracking British consumer attitudes to online and on-demand services. This year’s study reveals that almost a third of broadband users are regular consumers of online TV or movies – but they don’t want to have to pay for the content.

When the ‘Kangaroo’ JV between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 launches next year, it’ll be interesting to see what mix of business models are offered.

In a related development, BT is experimenting with ad-funded VoD on its Vision IPTV service. A sign that PPV is RIP?





The U.K.: greenhouse for new media ideas?

3 12 2007

It’s a badly kept industry secret that Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite TV platform saw the introduction of both interactivity and its Sky+ DVR in the U.K. as a test-bed for rolling the services out in other key territories.

Now it looks as if others are learning from both the Murdoch approach to digital product innovation and the potential of the U.K. as a greenhouse for emerging ideas and propositions which may capture the imagination of customers in other territories.

Last week, Casey Harwood, SVP of Turner Broadcasting System Europe [which operates movie channel franchise TCM, as well as a slew of kids’ channels such as Boomerang] told guests at the Broadcasting Press Guild that the mix of digital platforms in the U.K. makes it the ideal springboard for launching new media initiatives.

So what is it about the U.K. digital market which makes it unique and ripe for such experimentation?

Firstly, the U.K. enjoys an ultra-competitive multichannel market, which sees IPTV newcomers like BT Vision and Tiscali TV jostling for position alongside maturing incumbents such as Freeview and pay TV delivered by Sky and Virgin Media.

It’s fair to say that the new arrivals have yet to establish themselves with any sizeable customer base, facing not only the formidable marketing might of the incumbents, but also the challenge of trying to pithily explain the benefits of what, to many, is an entirely new way of consuming traditional TV services.

But it’s this very competitiveness which makes the U.K. such a lively market in which to pilot new services and ideas, albeit for players with relatively deep pockets.

Turner’s move reflects comparatively lower costs for market entry: trialling a new service via the web carries with it only the developments costs of the content proposition itself and any associated marketing. Contrast this with the cost of agreeing a carriage deal: whether linear or non-linear + marketing and the econmics easily stack up.

Turner aren’t the only ones watching the U.K. either: in a post earlier today, thebeyondnessofthings observed how Disney sees Blighty as a key market in determining its prospects beyond a largely North American customer base.

But a warning from history to the fearless: TiVo, the company which can be credited for attempting to make the DVR product category its own, attempted to use the U.K. as a test-bed for a pan-European rollout back in the late nineties. Through a co-marketing deal with Sky it managed to accumulate a customer base of ~ 50K subscribers, only to humiliatingly retreat from actively selling its product into the market when the very company it chose to get into bed with unashamedly learnt from its mistakes and moved in to pick up the spoils.





Tiscali expands U.K. IPTV service

2 09 2007

Following its £50 million acquisition of IPTV service HomeChoice, Tiscali yesterday announced the expansion of the service to eight towns and cities outside its original footprint of London and Stevenage.

Around 5 million households in Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Liverpool, Salford and Warrington will now be able to access the service, offering 50 digital TV channels, including Sky One, Sky News and Sky Sport News. Customers can also pay extra for
Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3 and Sky Movies channels.

Prices start from £19.99 per month, with bundled offer two-megabit broadband, telephony and TV.

The service competes with BT Vision, which now has 44,000 subscribers and is on track to top 100,000 by Christmas. France Telecom-owned Orange is due to launch its IPTV service for the U.K. later this year.





BT Vision take-up accelerates

25 08 2007

The BT Vision IPTV service has more than doubled its subscriber base, according to unofficial figures published by Brand Republic yesterday.

Subscribers currently stand at 44,000 — slightly ahead of earlier estimates. At current growth rates, the installed base should easily break 100,000 U.K. households by Christmas.

BT has begun a national advertising campaign, with a particular emphasis on its sport package, including Premiership football. While the service remains a relative minnow v. pay TV platforms like Sky and Virgin Media, BT has succeeded in driving customer take-up for IPTV where others, such as Kingston Communications and Tiscali U.K. (nee HomeChoice) have failed.





Microsoft and BT to offer IPTV via Xbox in U.K.

10 08 2007

BT Vision customers who also own a Xbox will be able to access the subscription IPTV service before the end of the year, report 360gamer.

Microsoft already provides the software powering the BT Vision service: a DVR-enabled Freeview set-top box with VOD delivered via IP.

The service launched at the end of 2006 and, despite a broadening content offer , has struggled to significantly grow its customer base, which stood at 20,000 households last month. The company hopes that last month’s launch of BT Vision Sport, a near-live catch service offering Premiership football, will accelerate take-up. In its coverage, The Independent states that BT is connecting new customers to the Vision service at the rate of 2,500 per week, a trend which, if maintained, will see the customer base grow to 80,000 households by the end of 2007.

The pairing of BT Vision with Microsoft Xbox is a filip for both companies: BT is able to extend the appeal of its service to game players, while Microsoft gets an off-the-shelf solution for video content on its consoles in the U.K., an area with which it has encountered difficulties, resulting in delays to the European VOD offer for Xbox Live Marketplace.