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

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More iPlayer flack for a beleaguered BBC

2 08 2007

bbc_iplayer.jpg

Poor old Auntie, it’s already suffered a bit of a drubbing in the blogosphere following the beta release of its iPlayer internet catch-up service. Among the critics are those insisting that the BBC should immediately make available versions of the service compatible with Apple Mac and Linux operating systems — a relatively small, but very vocal and media-savvy bunch [is it mere coincidence that many Apple Mac owners also happen to work in media and entertainment industry-related jobs?].

A 10 Downing Street petition aiming to press the point has already garnered over 14,000 e-signatures [at time of posting], with a spike in new ones since all of the blog chatter increased during the last fortnight.

Now, the Free Software Foundation, a group “dedicated to promoting computer users’ rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs” is to take its latest campaign offline and protest the BBC’s offices in London and Manchester on 14 August.

The group claims the BBC’s appointment of senior manager Erik Huggers, formerly a director at Microsoft’s Windows digital media division, is as good as saying that the Beeb is in bed with Bill Gates.

Somehow, I don’t make the connection (at least not to the extent of the conspiracy theory purportedly playing out).

It’s akin to claiming that another large organisation hiring an ex-Enron employee to a senior role would mean that hire would act illegally.

So the BBC is aiming to future-proof its services by poaching expertise from a blue chip technology company; just as every other major operator in the content space is. Are there not other ex-Microsoft employees working in other senior roles at other organisations? 

Returning to the BBC iPlayer: which other broadcaster or other online video provider has been forced to provide Mac and Linux versions from day one? So the organisation is funded by everyone with a TV in the U.K. and is mandated to be platform agnostic.

But at which precise moment in time has the BBC made a statement saying it wasn’t working on versions of the iPlayer software suitable for other operating systems?

Hopefully the BBC’s new governance unit the BBC Trust won’t be scared into any knee-jerk response — it has, after all, been open season on BBC-bashing during all of the recent ‘faking it’ scandals which, in fairness, have been exposed across the U.K. broadcasting industry and not just at Auntie.

There’s a faint whiff of some opportunistic BBC-bashing by a handful of individuals who should get out some more. Flame away, but this same tiny constituency is wrongfully distorting the truth. Why not focus your activity on something far more pressing? [see post immediately above].