RICHARD Halton has not had an easy couple of years. Having taken the reins at YouView in September 2010 – the same year the internet-connected TV box was originally pencilled in to go on sale – he has had to deal with questions about project delays, criticism over the price of the hardware, and, last week, a lawsuit threatening to force YouView to change its name.
However, Halton, who spent 11 years in various BBC TV roles before joining YouView, remains supremely confident in the venture, which is backed by BT, TalkTalk and the UK’s four terrestrial networks. And he is unapologetic about the delays YouView has faced.
“My line through a couple of difficult years of waiting and waiting to put this thing on the market was that we were only going to put it out there when it’s good enough, which I think people were sympathetic to,” he says, as he cycles rapidly through the menus displayed on the TV screen in YouView’s office overlooking Tower Bridge.
Halton repeatedly answers the questions put to him by demonstrating YouView’s capabilities, letting the technology do the talking, and he obviously takes pride in what his team has finally brought out. “You can’t launch a platform backed by BT, BBC, ITV, TalkTalk, Channel 4 etc. and then it not be brilliant. The message is that it was worth waiting for, it does something that nothing else on the market does.”
But was it really worth the wait? When it was first announced in 2008 under the codename Project Canvas, YouView was a unique idea. Integrating on-demand services like the BBC’s iPlayer into a Freeview box was a compelling proposition, and years ahead of the competition.
However, since then, those services have found their way into Sky and Virgin Media’s digiboxes, not to mention games consoles, tablets and a growing range of internet-connected TVs.
By the time YouView went on sale, after years of delays and negotiations, and at a price of £300, many felt it had missed the boat, despite Lord Alan Sugar – who chairs YouView – claiming the technology will revolutionise TV as much as Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB did.
If YouView did not manage to offer anything different, then not only would the multi-million pound project be deemed a failure, but BT and TalkTalk, whose big pushes in the TV market in recent months have staked much on YouView’s success, would be dealt severe blows in their bids to compete against Sky and Virgin.
However, Halton clearly feels he has a superior product, pointing to the seamless integration between broadcast channels and on-demand video YouView offers, which was only possible after years of negotiations with networks and regulators. The result is an impressively complete and sleek product, which Halton contrasts with the other “complicated, messy, catch up solutions that are out there”.
He is effusive about the potential to expand YouView, which in the four months since its release has seen two software upgrades, as well as applications launched from the likes of Sky’s Now TV film streaming service.
YouView now has more than 30 developers working on new projects, which will include video-on-demand apps from the likes of Lovefilm, and a host of new internet channels set to launch next summer.
“We’re not remotely finished,” Halton says. “And I don’t say that because we launched a product that wasn’t ready, but the thing we’ve always said about YouView is that the thing is going to evolve constantly.
“What we will see is a whole new portfolio of channels launching on YouView, which will come over the internet, and that will be huge. At the moment Freeview is constrained to 70 or so channels, but once you allow the box to reference a channel that comes over the internet, that could be 700, 7000, 7m channels. We’re talking to content owners who have never had a TV channel before, people like the National Theatre who would love to have a channel on YouView, they’ve got lots of great live content and archives of footage to show, so that will be a big change.
“The fact that this proposition is designed to just keep on getting better, that gives us this sustainable advantage over the rest of the market. And [the content providers] are really excited, because they’re looking at this, they love the service, they love the product, they like the fact that it’s backed by the big boys. This is it, this is the big platform in the UK.”
Halton pulls out an iPhone to demonstrate the latest project his team have been hatching, an app that allows users to scan through YouView’s TV schedule and remotely record programmes, and this is where his enthusiasm for the technology really comes across.
“Those of us in the office that have got this, it’s now how we go and find out what’s on TV tonight. It puts everything in one place and its very easy to use. It’s brilliant, but this is just the start. We’re coming up with new ways to develop how you interact with the box. What we’ll end up doing is using smartphones and tablets as a way of innovating the experience,” Halton says, outlining the potential for networks to provide additional content on these “second screens” via YouView.
But of course, for these developments to matter, the technology has to make it into living rooms. And thankfully for Halton, last week saw the first signs of a positive uptake.
In the midst of the company losing a legal battle over its name from Cambridge-based tech company Your View (“We’re not going to change our name. It’s complex,” Halton says), TalkTalk said on Tuesday it was installing the YouView hardware – which is included in the company’s TV package – at a rate of 1,000 a day.
In addition to this, retail figures have been “fantastic” Halton says, and BT is beginning the process of phasing out installations of its own boxes in favour of YouView’s.
BT in particular is expected to be a big driver of sales from next summer, when it launches its sports channel following this year’s purchases of Premier League football and Premiership rugby rights.
And despite Sky’s current grip on much of the TV market, Halton is bullish about his chances of taking customers from the satellite operator. “There are always people washing in and out of Sky, there are a million people a year leaving, and for that cohort there is a lot to like about YouView.”
INTERNET TV’S STATE OF PLAY
■ YouView is an internet-connected Freeview box with a hard disk for recording TV programmes. It claims to truly integrate internet TV and regular TV for the first time. Scroll back in time on the programme guide to last night’s television, and press Play to watch a programme via an on-demand service such as BBC iPlayer, or search for a programme and have a list of episodes appear on the screen. Sky’s on-demand film subscription service, Now TV, is also available, with similar services due next year. The box on its own retails for £250.
■ BT’s TV service is starting to pick up traction having bought Premier League rights from 2013. A box is free on the £18-a-month TV and internet deal.
■ With TalkTalk’s broadband service being threatened by Sky, the company is offering TV deals. YouView is included on the £14.50 a month package.
■ The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are all partners, and have freed up their on-demand offerings for YouView.
■ Long the dominant force in the UK’s pay-TV market, Sky continues to go from strength to strength, and has overtaken TalkTalk to become the UK’s third-biggest internet provider. Also offers on-demand content like iPlayer, although not to the same extent as YouView does.
■ Virgin is signing up more of its users to its internet-connected TiVo box, which has a number of apps which include catch up services. It also has an extensive fibre broadband service and a range of its own on-demand content.