Google TV hopes US failure won’t put us off

Steve Dinneen
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The roll-call of keynote speakers at The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival reads like a who’s who of the industry. Rupert Murdoch, Mark Thompson, Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys, Greg Dyke, Michael Grade, Tony Ball. (The list is only slightly sullied by the appearance of Janet Street-Porter’s name, which I assumed was a mistake until I Googled it. Nothing is perfect.)

It is interesting, then, that this year’s speaker was Google chairman Eric Schmidt. His speech, which had a whiff of the sales pitch to it, encouraged the amassed industry figures to “Think beyond the TV box... Don't hold back from the journey.” The “journey” being Google TV, the smart TV platform that borrows from its Android and Chrome products. Until now it has only been available in the US but early next year we will be able to take the journey here too. Which is good. Except Google TV has been an unmitigated flop since its launch in the US last year. In July launch-partner Logitech was forced to slash the price of its Revue set-top box from $249 to just $99, meaning it will make a loss on every unit. Damningly, it was claimed last month that returns of the product are outpacing sales. A large part of the reason for its failure to catch on is the antipathy of the major US broadcasters, who saw it as a threat and promptly blocked it.

But this isn’t the only problem. Apple TV, while quietly evolving into a very decent product, has failed to set the world on fire. The new version, released last year, sold 1m units within three months, which most chief executives would eat their family dog for. But Tim Cook’s firm (get used to it) has been known to sell more than 20m iPhones a quarter. Steve Jobs was well aware that Apple TV wasn’t going to take over the world, referring to it as his “hobby”.

The problem is people are incredibly loath to change their TV habits. Audience figures have held up remarkably well, despite the prevalence of new mobile devices and online platforms. A recent study showed children watch almost as much TV as a decade ago. People were convinced to buy Freeview boxes, but the choice was stark – if you don’t own this your TV will eventually stop working (even my mother successfully bought and installed one, which shows just how ubiquitous they are).

But Google will have to come up with a better sales pitch than “Think beyond the TV box” if it hopes to success here where it has failed abroad.