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

May 20, 2010

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.


Simon Fuller revolutionises the TV pilot

December 19, 2009

I was intrigued to read (in the Financial Times) that Simon Fuller, founder of 19 Entertainment, intends to pilot his new show not on television but on the internet.

Fuller, who devised American Idol, US television’s most successful format in years, has developed a new venture called If I Can Dream. I quote: It “will follow the efforts of five young people trying to break into the entertainment industry. Their every move will be streamed online, with the audience able to interact with them via video messages and social networking sites such as Twitter and MySpace.”

Clearly this represents a step-change beyond the reality entertainment of Big Brother, with digital interactivity moving centre-stage instead of acting as a useful ancillary. But the real beauty of his digital strategy is that it will massively reduce the cost of producing a pilot on US network TV.

How so? Well, Fuller intends to use Hulu, an online video entertainment platform jointly owned by Fox, ABC and NBC, which will enable him to build a web audience, slowly but steadily, for several months before launching on TV. Hulu had about 42 million viewers in October.

Could something similar happen in the UK (home of American Idol’s prototype, Pop Idol)? After all  the tears and gnashing of teeth in the IPTV sector over the regulator’s refusal to endorse the Kangaroo project, the odds might seem low. Not so, necessarily. I read in the same edition of the FT that Project Canvas, a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Five and BT aimed at standardising online video technology, has taken on a new spurt of life. It has now added Channel 4 and TalkTalk to its ranks. That leaves only BSkyB (sister company of Fox) as a significant outsider.

There’s hope yet for a triumph of common sense.

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