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BBC gets go-ahead to build its digital “Trojan horse”

I cannot be alone in wondering why the Office of Fair Trading has given Project Canvas a clean bill of health after coming down so hard on Project Kangaroo.

Both, after all are VoD joint multichannel ventures in which the BBC would play a significant role. Ignorance of the differences is no doubt attributable to my superficial understanding of these two projects.

Here’s how Sheldon Mills, the OFT’s director of mergers, explains the case for non-intervention: “… The partners, including the BBC, do not intend to transfer an existing business into the JV…Therefore the proposals do not give rise to a merger qualifying for substantive investigation by the OFT.”

Still puzzled? Well, essentially Canvas is about platform-building – in this case through set-top boxes which bring the web to Freeview and Freesat television. As opposed to distributing pre-existing programme content through internet protocol television players on our computer screens. That’s all right then, viewers: at least we’re now fully cognisant of the important technical differences between the two projects. Hidden in the OFT small print, however, is a more compelling reason for blocking Kangaroo but waving Canvas through. Apparently, in the case of Canvas, none of the partners will have a “material influence” over the policy’s venture; clearly implying that, in the case of Kangaroo, the BBC did – a situation that would have eventually enabled it to exercise a stranglehold over UK IPTV.

Canvas, by contrast, is nothing to worry about: just some harmless cross-industry platform building in which the BBC is going to play a humdrum role. You’ll not be surprised to hear that’s not what the critics – mainly BSkyB and Virgin Media – have concluded. Earlier this year Virgin Media chief executive Neil Berkett stigmatised the Canvas Project as a BBC Trojan horse. He accused the BBC’s regulator, the Trust, of cravenly supporting the corporation’s bid to become “de facto gatekeeper of the digital world.” Manufactured hysteria, or prescient insight? We’ll know soon enough.

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