Monthly Archives: November 2009

iPlayer and Xbox: game over?

According to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, the BBC and Microsoft have “indefinitely” postponed their plans to launch the iPlayer on the Xbox Live platform. The newspaper alleges that the cause was a disagreement over Microsoft’s strategy to enable access to the iPlayer only to its premium subscribers, which would be incompatible with the BBC’s public remit.

The BBC iPlayer is available on more than 20 devices, including games consoles such as the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii, as well as PC and mobile phones. It is also available to Virgin Media’s subscribers.

BBC’s strategy to make the iPlayer available through as many platforms as possible is controversial, with pay-TV providers such as BSkyB complaining of unfair competition from the public service broadcaster. The service is, however, popular with consumers, receiving an average of 75 million requests a month. It has received more than 900 thousand requests through the Nintendo Wii since April 2008 and 100 million views in its first year of partnership with Virgin Media.  

Despite the postponement of iPlayer on the Xbox, multi-platform free catch-up TV has taken hold in the UK and will continue to challenge traditional pay-TV operator business models. High-audience genres such as live sports are not commonly available for free ‘over-the-top’, but the increasing availability of free, popular catch-up content makes basic pay-TV offers less attractive. While the penetration of game consoles is limited, hybrid free-to-air and OTT set-top-boxes will pose an even greater threat to pay-TV operators.  

French DTT in HD by 2015? Bonne Chance!

The French regulator, the CSA, has suggested that France’s entire DTT platform could be broadcast in HDTV by 2015. The comments came from CSA member Alain Méar at a recent debate on the future of DTT in Paris, hosted by NPA Conseil.

Currently, there are 31 channels broadcasting across six DTT multiplexes, only five of which are available in HD (these are simulcasts of the Canal+ premium channel, public channels France 2 and Arte, and commercial channels TF1 and M6).

Since under French broadcasting rules, the standard-definition channels are broadcast in MPEG-2 and the HD ones in MPEG-4, there is scope for spectrum savings if simulcasting is stopped and all the channels are converted to MPEG-4.

Even so, the CSA’s proposals are challenging: eleven DTT multiplexes would be required, alongside another two to be reserved for mobile broadcast TV. The CSA itself has already complained that government plans to harmonize the so-called 800MHz band in line with EC recommendations – which would require part of the expected digital dividend from analogue switchoff to be allocated to mobile services – would endanger plans to migrate the DTT platform to HDTV. (The risk is real: a recent position paper by the EBU warns of the technical obstacles harmonization could place in the way of European analogue switchoff plans).

One answer would be to migrate to the use of the next-generation standard DVB-T2, which offers potential efficiency savings of at least 40% over DVB-T (the standard currently used in France for both standard-definition and high-definition services). DVB-T2 has been adopted in the UK in response to a similar conundrum.

However, during the debate, which Farncombe attended, it was not clear that the use of DVB-T2 was being considered by the CSA. It is difficult to see how the regulator can square the circle without it.

Canalsat and Sky – who needs a dish?

French pay-satellite operator Canalsat is to offer non-subscribers access to a subset of its satellite channels over the Internet. Called Canalsat Web TV, the service is separate from the Canal+ VOD service Canalplay, which is available both in ‘over-the-top’ mode and integrated into French ISPs’ IPTV offerings.

Canalsat Web TV offers 63 of around 300 channels available from Canalsat using a dish and decoder. When launched a year ago, it was only available for free as an add-on for Canalsat customers subscribing to its top tier. Now non-subscribers can pay €25/m to access the service, with existing subscribers to the lowest Canalsat tiers paying €7/m extra.

The Web service – which is also available on the iPhone – offers less choice than its satellite equivalent: a mid-range Canalsat tier offering 230 channels via satellite is currently available for €23.90m. However, Canalsat Web TV comes with no strings attached: subscribers can enrol or churn out every month.

The Canalsat move closely resembles a similar initiative by BSkyB in the UK, which opened up its online Sky Player platform to non-subscribers in October. Entry-level is €18/m for just 20 channels.

Both can be seen as experiments which seek to establish the price consumers are willing to pay for the utility of ‘untethered’ viewing of premium channels anywhere in the home, in an environment devoid of contract tie-ins. Such offers also fulfil a secondary purpose for the operators: for existing subscribers, additional, more flexible viewing options help to keep them from churning and migrating to free OTT video; while it’s also an opportunity to showcase premium content to non-subscribers without requiring any commitment.

BSkyB’s Sky Player: subs forced to opt out of targeted advertising and accept cookies

Only a few weeks after I blogged about the content restrictions Sky Player imposes in an online environment (relative to the satellite one), Sky has now emailed every Sky Player user a new set of terms and conditions.

The most significant change relates to targeted advertising. The Sky email states: “In future, the advertising you see on Sky Player may be better tailored to your interests. The new system, which is called Sky AdSmart, uses customer information to replace some general adverts with ones which we believe to be more relevant to viewers’ potential preferences and interests.”

(Sky AdSmart can be thought of as an Internet-based precursor to targeted ad-substitution on Sky’s satellite PVR platform, due to begin in the first half of 2011.)

Accordingly, the new Ts & Cs s state that Sky will use ‘cookies’ for the purpose of “serving behavioural and tailored advertising on Sky online services and websites and selected third party websites, [...] which means you may receive advertisements which are more relevant to you.”

There is an opt-out, of course: users can go to their personal profile and tick a box to say they do not wish to receive this kind of targeted advertising – but the default position is that unless they do so, they will get it: this is not an opt-in system. Ticking the box effectively disables the ‘session cookie’ as well as what Sky calls the ‘Audience Science cookie’.

However, for those who wish to disable all of their cookies (Sky lists six different types including the two above), this will completely disable the Sky Player service. The new Ts &Cs state that “The Service cannot operate if you set your browser to reject all cookies.”

It is not immediately obvious why this should be so, because Sky Player doesn’t rely on these cookies to identify the subscriber or the device as legitimate: in the Ts & Cs, Sky says that users must consent to information being collected about them through the service, which includes the Microsoft Windows Product Key of the registered device, its IP address, and “information derived from the hardware configuration of [the device].” This is of course in addition to the requirement to login and enter a password to use Sky Player. Other authentication information is also presumably being passed back and forth by the Windows DRM system Sky Player uses.

I have to say I find both the ‘opt-out’ and ‘cookie acceptance’ policies surprisingly heavy-handed. But perhaps that is the intention – to test consumer reaction to such policies in the online environment before they finally determine how to soften them for the satellite domain.

The new Ts & Cs also tighten another screw, incidentally: it was definitely my impression that previously, you were allowed to watch Sky Player content on different registered devices at the same time – as long as it wasn’t the same content. The updated version now says you can’t watch any content on two registered devices at the same time. If you boot up a second registered device, you’ll simply stop receiving the content you were watching on the first one.

I can think of good practical reasons for doing that: quality is likely to be reduced on both streams unless the household has at least 4-5Megs available downstream. But isn’t that a matter for the user?