In television, as with many other things in life, you have to keep the faith. Fifteen years ago, when UK telco BT thought broadband was just a passing fad and nobody thought you could ever watch a TV set without an aerial, I joined a small company that had developed the first video on demand TV platform in Britain.
We were pioneers, full of hope and ambition, but like many adventurers before us our dreams were to evaporate. VOD, we thought, would take the world by storm. It didn’t. Instead it crept up on the television environment bit by bit, eating into it slowly.
Fifteen years after we first demonstrated the wonders of stop, pause and rewind; fifteen years after we showed how it was possible to catch up on programmes you might have missed (‘timeslip’ we called it then); and fifteen years after we first introduced the concept of a ‘backwards EPG’ through which viewers could scroll to find the shows they wanted to watch again, the wonders of VOD are still only just beginning to be deployed as the essential tools of any TV platform looking to remain competitive.
But here’s a funny thing. The platforms that have had the benefits of VOD at their disposal since we first tried to kick it into life all those years ago are not those that are now leading the charge. In fact they are beginning to find themselves on the defensive as new entrants, seizing the moment, swarm like Mongol hordes across their territory.
Platform operators all over the world that have tentatively nursed VOD without fully embracing it find themselves challenged by over-the-top operators who have surged forward, using the operators’ networks and bandwidth to lure their customers into their arms.
Netflix and Lovefilm (aka Amazon) have taken advantage of the technology that was already there in a way that no-one expected. Gorging on content from the world’s major distributors and using as their own the systems that others have expensively developed, they are galloping everywhere in a global rush to become the new masters of television entertainment.
Should we have seen this coming? And is there anything we can do about it? The answer to both questions is yes.
Those who have always been sceptical about the advantages of VOD will tell you that most television viewing is still devoted to linear streams. This is true. But we live – as someone once said – in an ‘all at once’ society. And all at once the comfortable facts that kept us dependent on the familiar and established don’t seem as reassuring as they did.
The fightback by the incumbents against the predatory activity of ‘over-the-top’ providers will require strong, non-linear services that platforms can deploy to give their customers the rich and extensive viewing opportunities they crave
For most people linear viewing equals television: full stop. But wait a moment. Linear television without a catch up feature to support it is increasingly seen as intolerable – and even the most dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned couch potatoes like nothing more than box sets of their favourite shows on which to feast.
So even linear isn’t really linear anymore. It is becoming the shop window for programmes that, once identified, can be saved on the PVR, caught up with on the EPG or bought in box-set form from Amazon and iTunes. These are the habits that Netflix and Lovefilm have been able to exploit, but there’s no reason why threatened incumbent platforms cannot take advantage of them as well.
All cable and broadband platforms have the great advantages of plentiful storage, ease of access and simple, intuitive navigation. Using these assets they can point their customers to the programmes they want to see when they when want to watch them. But in order to do this they need to have the content available in the right form. In other words, it’s time for broadcasters and rights owners to stop thinking linear (or at least stop thinking about it quite so much) and concentrate instead on VOD. Some, of course, are beginning to do this.
The comprehensive catch up services offered by broadcasters such as the BBC in the UK and the SVOD services provided by some Hollywood studios are the first signs of growth in this area. But these are only scraping the surface. The fightback by the incumbents against the predatory activity of ‘over-the-top’ providers will require strong, non-linear services that platforms can deploy to give their customers the rich and extensive viewing opportunities they crave.
It’s a battle that needs to be joined immediately.
Hugh Williams is cofounder of Cirkus, a subscription on-demand service that provides ‘Best of British’ television. Cirkus will launch in Sweden on Com Hem and Boxer at the end of this year.