This year will see the launch of YouView, a new TV service which has been touted as either the future of free TV or the biggest white elephant since the launch of Daybreak.
YouView is the result of two years of development by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva (which owns and runs the UK’s TV and radio transmitters).
The goal is to unite free TV platforms like Freeview HD and Freesat HD with the success of the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five, while allowing viewers to access extra TV, films and other content via their broadband connection, such as LoveFilm, Netflix, Sky Go or Spotify. There will be no up-front subscription or contract - it will be up to viewers to decide what they want and pay as they go.
BT and Talk Talk are on board because they both have TV services that are looking a bit long in the tooth, while YouView needed broadband industry experts. You’ll be able to use any broadband connection, but YouView will let BT and Talk Talk be part of something bigger while offering their subscribers discounted YouView boxes or exclusive TV and films.
Details of the YouView experience are still shrouded in secrecy, but here’s what we’ve learned so far.
The first YouView boxes will have the same broadcast TV channels as Freeview HD: four HD channels (BBC HD, BBC One HD, ITV1 HD and Channel 4 HD), plus another 40-odd standard definition TV channels and more than 20 digital radio channels.
Freesat-compatible YouView boxes are expected to arrive later on - probably in 2013 - which will have the larger range of Freesat TV and radio channels.
Backwards programme guide
YouView users will have something that’s previously only been available on Virgin Media’s TiVo box: a ‘backwards’ onscreen programme guide for catch-up TV.
Instead of using iPlayer or ITV Player to find TV shows from the past seven days, you’ll be able to scroll backwards to find the shows just as you would to set up a recording. The YouView box will either stream the show directly or automatically start the catch-up app.
YouView will launch with BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five, but hopefully other important Freeview channels like Dave will add catch-up as well.
Video on demand
Catch-up TV is the hook that will get the first YouView boxes jumping off shelves, but long term success depends on having a lot more to offer, whether it’s ad-funded on-demand TV or pay-per-view and low-cost subscriptions.
No official content suppliers have been confirmed, but in March 2011 YouView said it was working with a long list of potential providers, some more familiar than others. They included Blinkbox, Blinkx, BSkyB, Film4oD, Golant Media Ventures, Guardian News & Media, IndieMoviesOnline, LOVEFiLM, Pushbutton, Radioplayer, Stream UK, STV, Travel Channel, Tvinci, UTV and woomi.
Sky has confirmed that it will launch a dedicated internet TV service in mid-2012, which will probably replace Sky Go. It would be an obvious fit for YouView, particularly given Sky’s own aborted attempt to launch a Freeview-based connected TV service in 2008.
Arqiva is sitting on the online rights to numerous TV shows following the failure in 2011 of SeeSaw, its own PC-only internet TV service.
Provided YouView is built on technology standards that make it easy for content providers to come on board, it’s unlikely any significant player will turn down the opportunity.
Beyond the Red Button
Anyone who’s used a digital TV service will be familiar with the Red Button, which has become the standard way to get extra interactive content such as news, weather and multi-screen sports.
With broadband built into the core of YouView, broadcasters will be able to launch interactive applications and a greater selection of video streams direct from live TV.
This will be complemented by a search engine using SMS-style input from the remote, which will integrate live TV, catch-up, video on-demand and apps, encouraging users to explore both free and paid-for services.
YouView is also hoping to encourage non-TV apps that will bring public services like NHS Direct onto the TV screen, games, or communications like Skype video calls.
Boxes of distinction
From the very start, YouView has been partnered with some excellent set-top box manufacturers: Cisco, which makes the Virgin Media TiVo boxes; Korean set-top box giant Humax; and Technicolor, formerly known as Thomson. All three have been involved in YouView since its inception in 2010.
They were joined in April 2011 by Huawei, the Chinese electronics company with fingers in many pies, British consortium and digital TV veterans Manhattan, British set-top box brand Pace, and Vestel, the Turkish manufacturer and white-label technology supplier.
It’s a far wider choice of manufacturers than were on board Freesat when that platform was launched, but it is lacking any of the world’s major consumer electronics brands, because they already have their own connected TV services.
The standard YouView device at launch will be a twin-tuner Freeview HD recorder, with an Ethernet port for accessing the broadband services. It will have both HDMI and digital audio outputs, and a standardised remote control layout.
As the service develops, YouView has indicated it will welcome Freesat HD devices, TVs with YouView built-in, and even standalone broadband-only boxes with no TV tuner.
Update: YouView's launch date is now expected to be later in the year, after the London 2012 Olympics and possibly towards Christmas 2012.
Update 17/05/2012: TalkTalk schedules YouView for July-September financial quarter.
Update 04/05/2012: John Lewis features Humax YouView box in Summer 2012 tech catalogue.
Update 07/06/2012: YouView invites public to sign up for user trial.