Smallscreen: TV on demand

Soon we will be able to watch the internet’s television-on-demand services on our TV sets. What will this do to our viewing habits?
June 21, 2010
Catch up with ITV3—the best British channel by a mile
The peace and certainty of our television viewing is about to be shattered. We’ve coped with the introduction of multi-channel television via aerial, cable and satellite. We’re well into the habit of time-shifting with devices such as Sky+. We’ve upgraded to high-definition without too much trauma. But from next year the internet, with its chaotic profusion of content, will become available on our television sets. Project Canvas will launch in early 2011, probably under the name of YouView. It is a partnership between terrestrial broadcasters (BBC, ITV, C4 and Five) and companies (including BT and TalkTalk). It will offer a set-top box like Freeview which enables catch-up services like BBC iPlayer to be used on our television sets. The recently announced Google TV, which will launch in the US in the autumn, offers a similar service, as will others. The evidence suggests these will be popular. Virgin Media cable customers can access iPlayer and account for one in four of the programmes watched on it. Games consoles such as the Xbox also allow the internet to be linked to the television for multi-player games. (Prospect readers with teenage sons will already know this because they won’t have seen any telly in months.) Internet-delivered television may have major consequences for the traditional channels. We rely on ITV, Channel 4 and Five to aggregate shows we want to watch. But now companies like Google will be competing with them. In addition, the terrestrial commercial channels sell advertising more cheaply on their catch-up services (ITV Player, 40D and Demand Five) than on their networks, and so might face a drop in revenue. Internet television will also compete with Sky and Virgin: both will still have their exclusive sport and additional services such as Sky+, but will we continue to pay their subscriptions when the internet can bring us extra choice? This question has been exercising these two television platforms and is reflected in their vociferous opposition to Project Canvas. The true convergence of the internet and the television may prove highly disruptive to all the business models of the television industry. It will also change our viewing habits. Sky+ has loosened the grip of the schedule, but internet television could put a bomb under it. The iPlayer’s slogan is “Making the unmissable unmissable.” You can watch anything from the last seven days of BBC output. ITV, Channel Four and Five extend this to any show from the previous 30 days. If you’re not already in the habit of using these services on your laptop or home computer, I recommend a little experiment. Set aside a few hours and go online to pick shows you’d like to watch. It’s quite liberating. This is what Smallscreen has done this month—I have no idea what I’ll be reviewing for you. Let’s start with the BBC iPlayer… Along with Dr Who, Casualty, EastEnders and so on there’s Jonathan Ross presenting I’m in a Rock ’n’ Roll Band! (BBC2). I don’t think so. The movie, Legally Blonde (BBC3). Seen it. Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (BBC4). Excellent, but also seen it. How about Junior Apprentice (BBC1)? OK, but three minutes in I realise this was a big mistake. So I exit immediately and pick something else: Dunkirk: The Soldiers’ Story (BBC2). Yes, that’s better. This turns out to be a rather inspiring tapestry of archive and reminiscence. There’s no hint of a histrionic Simon Schama or Dan Snow getting in the way, just the story of the 1940 British Expeditionary Force told in the Tommies’ own words—68,000 of them were killed, injured or captured but, astonishingly, 338,226 were ferried back. I like the precision of that number. And a special treat—a clip of George Formby singing “Imagine me in the Maginot Line.” 4OD next. Bodyshock is about two children joined at the head, but I’m not in the mood for a shocumentary. Gok’s Fashion Fix or Derren Brown Investigates? Not this afternoon, thank you. Blitz Street or Escape from Colditz? I’ve already had my dose of the second world war. Ah, I know, The Inbetweeners—a highly praised comedy that I haven’t got round to watching even though it’s in series two. It’s described as “puerile adult humour with strong language.” Perfect. It turns out to be a monument to wet farts, lager and self-abuse. And yes, it is very funny. ITV Player. Slightly less tempting choices on its home page. The eight most watched programmes include Britain’s Got Talent, Emmerdale, Piers Morgan’s World Cup and The Vampire Diaries, none of which appeal. But what riches there are concealed behind the ITV3 logo. With repeats of Morse, Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves and Wooster, this is clearly Britain’s best channel by a country mile. I’d like to review one of these for you but, frankly, I’m now far too busy watching them all. So, until next month…