CES 2014 – what we’ll be looking for

Giles Cottle, Head of Strategy at Freesat, reports in from the Consumer Electronics Show. 

roulette wheelFor those of us involved in the techier end of the TV industry, the second week in January means just one thing – putting off the post-Christmas diet for another week and hopping on a plane to the vast consumer electronics funfair that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

CES is the world’s largest consumer technology show and the launching pad for the sublime and the ridiculous…including any number of weird and wonderful gadgets and technologies. This year the show promises to be full of wearable technology, in-car audio and automation, fridges that talk to you and even a smart crock-pot.

Freesat is already over here in Vegas, and, if we can pull ourselves away from talking cars and fridges, will be keeping a close eye on what’s new and exciting in the TV world. This year, Mediatel has asked us to report back on the best of what we see, spot potential future trends and bring back one of those crock pots.

Across the 1.9 million square feet (over 5000 football pitches) of the exhibition we are going to be looking around for the following:

TVs, TVs, TVs

Freesat is, obviously, a TV platform, so not surprisingly we love looking at new TVs… Among some of the potential highlights – bendy TVs” from Samsung (if Michael Bay ever lives it down); A new Smart TV from LG built on Web OS, which was previously a once promising smartphone OS that could have challenged Google’s Android platform; we also understand that Roku (which Sky has a stake in) will be integrating their software, which allows viewers to stream online video services to the TV without a PC or a games console, into Smart TVs from leading Chinese manufacturers HiSense and TCL.

4K – or ultra High Definition

It’s pretty clear that the next generation of TV displays is here in the form of ‘4K’ is here to stay: 4K offers four times the picture quality of current HD TVs. The question is how quickly the entire industry – broadcasters, platforms, manufacturers and, of course, viewers – do – or don’t – start to adopt it. TVs that support 4K remain expensive for the mass market – we’ll be looking to see if TV manufacturers are closer to putting the technology into devices at a price point that will appeal to an audience other than those with a large wallet (and living room wall)

Dongles

Google’s Chromecast dongle – which allows users to share video from their smartphone to the TV – has received huge praise since it launched last year. CES will see several other providers, including Netgear, trying to plough the same furrow. We await to see if anyone can launch a “Chromecast-killer” at CES.

What the US TV operators are up to

Freesat is always interested in checking in with our US-based peers, including the likes of Dish, Comcast and DirecTV. Previous years have seen Dish using CES to launch its whole-home DVR (recording) product as well as unveiling the controversial ad-skipping feature for recorded programmes. This year, Dish has already announced a ’box-less’ version of their service for Smart TVs – we’ll see what else they have in store this week.

We’ll be at the show for the rest of the week – so if you’re keen to know more about what’s going on over here, follow us on Twitter @freesat_tv, plus we’ll be at Mediatel’s CES Debrief on the 21st January 2014.

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By Freesat

A Busman’s Holiday (or, different strokes for different folks)

HB Munchen It was with much excitement that Team Freesat packed its collective bags and headed to Munich last month. Munich is one of the world’s great cities (and the fourth most desirable to live in, according to some surveys), boasting beautiful scenery, great food, the world’s largest beer festival and, now, the world’s best football team.

Sadly, Freesat was not off on its summer holidays, but we did get the chance to spend a great afternoon with HD Plus, Germany’s free-to-air satellite TV service provider and the closest to being a German cousin of Freesat. We left after our day with our impressive HD Plus hosts with a much clearer idea of what makes our two markets similar and, more pertinently, what makes them different (beyond what we learnt from Tuesday’s amusing BBC TWO documentary Make Me A German).

The HD Plus proposition is – you’ll be amazed to hear – based largely on HD programming; viewers pay a small annual fee for the HD versions of the country’s key commercial channels (the HD PSB channels are free). This may seem contradictory for a “free” service but for a long time, entry-level TV in Germany consisted of basic cable TV, paid for as part of your monthly rent or apartment service charge.

HD Plus has been a success – it reaches 2.6m homes and an impressive 1.2m pay for the extra HD channels. But another key TV market technology that has defined the UK TV market in the last decade – the PVR – is much less popular – a minority of HD Plus customers use one, and ad-skipping is disabled from the HD Plus PVR; this compares to 2/3s of UK homes.

HD Plus maintain that disabling this capability is there to protect the business models of the German broadcasters – and it’s interesting to see the business taking the polar opposite tack to Dish in the US on this matter

Some of the factors in the success of HD Plus are familiar: German viewers really value the lack of a contract, a motivation that services like Netflix, Zipcar and EasyGym have also taken advantage of. But there’s also a very German, and perhaps unlikely, factor behind the success of HD Plus – anonymity. HD Plus goes to great lengths to ensure viewers that their data will never be collected. Privacy is a very, very big deal in Germany, something wittily explained by Jeff Jarvis here; it’s also of note that the German reaction to the PRISM scandal has been proactive, to say the least.

Whilst there’s a lot of talk about the impact of global companies on national media markets, it seems pretty clear to us that audiences in different countries still expect a lot to be made just for them, and that one size definitely does not fit all. Freesat has always looked beyond its UK borders when deciding on what services to launch and technical standards to use, but one of the most popular features of <free time>, Freesat’s shiny TV Guide, is the Backwards TV Guide, an almost uniquely British phenomenon that, to our knowledge, is not launched or widely used in most other media markets.

John Cleese - Fawlty Towers Graffito - Alfama District - Lisbon, PortugalOf course we know that some of our most-loved British TV shows – Fawlty Towers, Blackadder et al – are quintessentially British, in the same way that Germany has its own zeitgeist TV, including the annual Christmas TV ritual of Der 90. Geburtstag, (which we have to point out is in fact a dubbed British comedy…). So above and beyond what we already knew, what our brief Busman’s Holiday to Munich did confirm was that national identity most definitely extends to TV services, too.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

By Freesat

It is a truth, universally acknowledged…

(or now is the summer of our great content)

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The silly season is upon us and whilst we tend to avoid mutual backslapping at Freesat Towers, this morning all of us are feeling inspired and – dare we say it – rather proud to be British.

Inspired because last night we hosted the fifth annual Freesat Awards, where we saluted the best free television and radio successes of the last year.

And proud to be British because the Awards were all about the TV and radio that Britain loves – demonstrated through quintessentially Brit winners such as Ant and Dec, Twenty Twelve and Broadchurch.

And it seemed rather fitting, in this sun-drenched week, gripped by Murray mania and the exploits of the British Lions Down Under, that we were able to come together and celebrate the great British TV that we all love. Congratulations to all our winners!

In fact, we here at Freesat think that British TV is having something of a mini halcyon age, even after taking our (admittedly biased) hats off, both commercially and creatively.

The UK exports more formats overseas than any other country in the world. The UK is second only to the US in total programme exports; ITV commissioned over 100 programmes in 2012; and Downton Abbey alone has now been exported to over 100 countries, and counting.

But this creative quality is neither an accident nor a coincidence. It takes years of investment to make great quality radio and TV. The BBC and ITV alone spent £2.5bn on TV and radio in 2011. And we know well that investment in the media industry is actually all about ideas and people – as well as execution. And that’s what ensures the UK remains on top of the TV tree.

That same quality of programming is what, interestingly, keeps subscription-free TV so great.

The UK is something of anomaly in terms of the power and strength of free-to-air TV. Around 50% of UK homes get their main TV service from a free-to-air provider like Freesat. This is a really high number full stop – and it’s far, far higher than the other markets that lead the world in producing and exporting TV programmes. The U.S., in contrast, has 90% Pay TV population.

Put very simply, it’s because of the quality of programmes on free-to-air TV that so many viewers chose to watch subscription-free and don’t feel the need to go elsewhere – and we here at Freesat are really proud to be a part of that very British quirk of nature.

But the current success of UK broadcasting comes at a time when a lot of changes, short- and long-term, are occurring in the TV market. Programme-makers face continued accusations of dumbing down; ‘binge’ watching may be on the rise; and us viewers, apparently, have shorter and shorter attention spans – with TV-time multitasking on the rise.

All of these trends and market traits are interesting, and pose real challenges for broadcasters and programme-makers alike – because as we’ve said, great TV doesn’t come cheap.

So maybe we’re pushing the envelope way too far now, but indulge us, the sun’s out after all… We started to wonder if there might be parallels with another highly creative – and economically challenging – age the 1920s.

Cameraman PosterAfter all, there was the game-changing new creative format, the Talkies; the rise of Hollywood from nowhere; and the exotic magnetism of affordable cinema, which together permanently altered the global entertainment market and allowed for the invention of television a decade later.

TV may not be new to 2013 in the way that Hollywood was in the 1920s, but as a medium, it’s now attracting the kind of talent, production values and quality that was once restricted to the big screen.

So which of the trends and which of the players of today could have the same impact one hundred years on? Ideas welcome, and we will continue to ponder.

But one thing is certain, indeed there is a truth universally acknowledged*, we must never forget from the 1920s….

Great programming, be that gripping drama, cutting-edge documentaries or inspiring children’s television, will always be great programming, no matter what the format, or how it’s viewed. And viewers will always gravitate towards what’s good – and arguably what’s subscription-free, no matter where it is.

So, while we all consider what’s really changed and what’s yet to come, over a Pimms in the park, let’s not forget it’s the viewer that really rules the waves** – and long may Britain’s viewers be the ones leading the charge.

Emma Scott – Managing Director – Freesat

*Had to get some Jane Austen in
**We think that’s quite enough patriotism for one day. We are British after all.

By Freesat

Newsflash – Freesat’s exclusive sneak peek of The White Queen, don’t miss.

The White Queen

Freesat jumped at the chance to attend the private screening of the much anticipated medieval drama The White Queen, where the highly praised novelist Philippa Gregory attended as well as some of the cast members.

It dawned on us that the BBC are on a roll of showing us thrilling variants of femme fatale-like characters through great drama. Recently, we saw Gillian Anderson play Stella Gibson as a convincing seductive DSI in the gripping thriller The Fall. The medieval drama The White Queen introduces us to a whirlwind of compelling determined women in their quest for power.

Gregory bares a familiar tale of The Wars of the Roses where we witness the pursuit for power and a hunt for hierarchy, and that’s just the women…

The nine year battle to be the rightful King of England leads to death, slaughter and desperation. Commoner, Elizabeth Woodville from the House of Lancaster played by the compelling Rebecca Ferguson is left a widow. She soon realises she will need to fight for her ancestral land and wealth for the good of her two sons, and there lies our first introduction to a medieval femme fatale.

Elizabeth uses wit and beauty to lure young King Edward IV played by Max Irons (son of actor Jeremy Irons). As a true seductress, Elizabeth entices Edward and just like that they fall in love much to the despair of their feuding families from the House of York and the House of Lancaster.

King Edward IV and Elizabeth’s passionate affair is encouraged by Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta played by Janet Mcteer. She concocts a spell to guarantee the King’s proposal to her daughter, therefore securing Elizabeth’s future as Queen. However, we soon see not everyone has their best interests at heart…

The King’s adviser Earl of Warwick played by James Frain is more than displeased with Edward marrying a commoner and forms an alliance with the exiled queen Margret  of Anjou. The Earl ordered his daughter Anne Neville to shrewdly marry Margret’s son, Prince Edward in order for Anne to become Queen, and there ensues the fight for the highest royal position.

What’s really interesting about this epic drama is the uncompromising characteristics of the women involved, from Elizabeth a mere commoner to Anne Neville a princess of the wealthiest family in the land. Both show they can be cunning in their own right and indeed extremely masterful in their pursuit to become Queen.

A Freesat must-see.

The White Queen, BBC One and BBC One HD Sunday 16th June, 9pm. For more, watch here.

Oh yes, let us not forget to mention that we stumbled across King Edward IV himself (Max Irons).  A lovely chap he was too…

Max-Irons---The-White-Queen

By Freesat

Why live rules even in an online world

Freesat has been watching proceedings across the pond regarding Aereo, the new live online TV service from the States, with interest. For $8 a month, Aereo allows users to stream live, broadcast TV channels over the Internet to their PCs and iOS devices. The concept is simple, but Aereo’s short history has been anything but, attracting Lindsay Lohan-levels of legal issues since launch.

We’ll leave the legal ramifications of the case to the experts, but we think Aereo throws up some interesting propositions from a service point of view. Aereo is, for all intents and purposes, a live broadcast TV service, albeit one delivered via the Internet. But viewers don’t care about where the programmes are coming from – they care about the programmes themselves. Clearly Aereo thinks people will pay for the convenience of watching these programmes – that they already get for free – on different devices. But there is no License Fee in the US, meaning Aereo users aren’t paying twice for the same programmes, as would be the case in the UK. Research Freesat has done shows that the fact that viewers already pay their License Fee is a big barrier to them paying for extra TV or programmes.

We also think it’s significant that the service is purely focused on live programming, as this is something all-too-easily forgotten when it comes to streaming. Video delivered via broadband is often seen as synonymous with on-demand, but there is a huge audience for live streaming. 820,000 people watched Andy Murray win gold at London 2012 online; globally, a whopping 72 million people watched the royal wedding on YouTube in April 2011.

But you’ll notice that the above examples are for huge, live events – events that people feel they simply cannot miss if they are away from their main sets. But is the use case for live streaming outside the home any broader than this? For some customers, certainly. But for many, Freesat thinks not. For one thing, the times when you’re outside the home and can watch TV are fairly limited. It’s certainly not advisable when driving, and trying to live stream something on public transport while travelling through patchy reception areas can be like pulling teeth. Watching at work tends to be out (unless you’re “working from home”, of course); even our telly-loving MD tends to draw a line at this.

There’s also the fact that TV watching is an experience. Big appointment-to-view dramas and comedies get a lot of hype, but the majority of TV is not appointment-to-view – only 58,000 tuned in to the much-hyped opening episode of “Mad Men” on Sky Atlantic. Lots of viewing is simply people turning their TVs on and deciding what to watch depending on how they feel, whether they want to be entertained or educated, who they’re with, and so on. To put it another way, watching TV is more than just about the programme you’re watching – it’s about context, mood and environment. And for many, the number 29 bus is not going to be the environment to enjoy watching TV.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

Bus

By Freesat

Appsolutely no point? The role of apps on the TV.

Following the launch of our YouTube HTML5 app (which went live last week), we’ve spent a lot of time welcoming the great and the good of the UK tech press to Freesat Towers to talk about the app, Freesat in general and our future plans for the platform. One of the questions we got asked most is what our future app strategy is, and when we will add a wider range of non-video apps to the platform.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Apps are now absolutely synonymous with the tech world we live in. Over half of us in the UK have smartphones, and apps are every bit as important to the smartphone experience as the user interface or the build of the device. Globally, we downloaded over 1.75bn apps in just one week at the end of 2012.

In some ways it’s easy to see why TV is seen as a natural next step for an app platform. TV has taken some major inspiration from mobile in recent years, user interfaces being an obvious example. Today, almost every TV manufacturer also offers apps as part of their latest ranges of smart devices. But should they bother?

The debate on the merits of TV apps has been done to death in recent years, with many questioning the merits of the TV as an app platform. The key arguments centre around the TV being a shared, not personal, device, and that it is a lean-back medium that people are less likely to want to interact with than their phones.  Our own viewer research at Freesat shows a sharp divide between “passive” viewers and “active” TV planners.

Freesat’s interest in this debate has been rekindled by some of the subtle changes that the major TV manufacturers and platforms have made in their platforms this year, suggesting apps are becoming less of a priority for them. It’s very noticeable that Samsung has demoted apps within its 2013 line-up of Smart TVs. Apps were front and centre of their 2011 and 2012 TVs; now, they are relegated to their own section of the UI. UPC’s Horizon service also has apps, but they too are very much a secondary part of the experience.

Which makes us think – less is more.  Afterall – how many apps on our smartphones do we use frequently? A quick poll of the Freesat office puts the number at 5-6 – which, coincidentally (or not) is also about the average number of TV channels that people habitually watch and revert to.

This is not to say that non-video apps have no place on the TV. The BBC revealed in 2010 that 12.7m people used red button services every week. But great programming remains key to the TV experience. If our customers start asking, en masse, for a smartphone-like variety of apps on the TV, then we would look again. But for now, most still want their TV to do what TV is supposed to do – deliver great programmes that they can find quickly and easily. Whether there is an app-etite [groan] for more….remains to be seen.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

By Freesat

From catch-up to catch-on: what TV can gain from going online first

You’ll be hard pressed to have missed the hype surrounding Netflix’s new House of Cards series. A high-profile ad campaign has accompanied its launch, including blanket coverage on London’s Underground, among other places.

The big deal about House of Cards, of course, is that it was commissioned by Netflix and, so far, can only be streamed, and not watched on TV. Online commissions aren’t new – even Tom Hanks has had a dabble before – but House Of Cards is by far the most high-profile (and expensive, at a cool $100m) yet. Based on the British programme of the same name and featuring Kevin Spacey as scheming, devious politico Frank Underwood, House of Cards is being talked about seriously as an Emmy contender, something unthinkable for an online programme a few years ago.

But Netflix is not the only company looking at streaming first. The BBC is looking to premiere some of its programmes via iPlayer, a fairly radical move for a broadcaster. And ITV has already offered the first episode of one programme, 666 Park Avenue, on ITV Player, before its broadcast on ITV2 the next day.

Changes are a-foot, for sure. But does all this mean the death of traditional TV in much the same way that online downloading of music content has led to the demise of the high street record shop? Freesat thinks not. Let me explain why.

The great advantage of broadcast TV is that it helps programmes reach large audiences cheaply and easily. For major programmes, TV still rules. A fraction of viewing of the London Olympics, to take one high-profile example, took place online – in fact, more viewing took place via the red button than online.

But we think online has an intriguing role to play when it comes to newer shows. On average, only about 1 in 5 pilots get made into whole series. TV commissioners have an uncanny knack of tapping in to what people want to watch on telly. Witness the current clamour for Scandi crime drama, something few would have predicted a few years ago. But inevitably, some programmes slip through the cracks, and there is simply not room on TV for every pilot that gets made to be spun into a whole series.

But launching a show online can bring a whole new angle to programme commissioning. It is arguably the perfect test-bed for new programmes. There is less at stake for a programme if it is shown online first, rather than taking up a valuable prime time slot. Instead, users can discover the programmes at a time that suits them, and the audience can build around the programme rather than around a time slot. Programmes which find success on an ITV Player or 4oD could easily graduate to broadcast TV, with much greater certainty surrounding the size and make-up of the expected audience. This can also help programmes build a buzz, not just from critics, but from punters too.

The net result of all this? Very simply, more great TV and programmes for the British public to enjoy, which, after all, is what Freesat is all about.

But even where programmes are “online first”, shared viewing of linear TV still has a key role to play in helping a broader audience to discover and socialise the content. Freesat thinks the vision of an ideal hybrid TV service is one which unites the best of broadband and broadcast content and offers consumers choice as to how they consume it. Television democracy in action, so to speak – something even Frank Underwood can stand by.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

By Freesat

Why Freesat is betting the house on HTML5

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Let’s be honest, we all love free carbs and sugar on a Monday morning, so as a newcomer to Freesat – I started three weeks ago, heading up our strategy team – I enjoyed starting my week with doughnuts at Freesat Towers to celebrate our 3 millionth sale. But more importantly to me, we also announced the imminent launch of YouTube on the Freesat <free time> platform. This is ground breaking for the UK on a number of levels.

YouTube, of course, is already on a range of connected devices and services worldwide. But what we have here at Freesat is the first deployment outside of the US of the HTML5 version of YouTube on a TV platform – which, in our humble opinion, looks fantastic. In fact <free time> is the first free TV platform to have launched this version of YouTube, and is the only free TV platform in the world to have done so, something we are particularly proud of.

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Typically, any content provider – and in this case the world’s leading User Generated provider – will only launch services on the biggest platforms or devices with the greatest numbers of viewers or users. Freesat, although one of the fastest growing UK TV platforms, is far from the biggest. So why did YouTube chose us?

The answer lies in our overall strategy. We are all about viewers. What they want, and what we think they might want – is what we will seek to deliver. When talking to viewers, the statement that comes up time and time again is that people have access to hundreds of channels, but think there’s never anything to watch. We want to put a stop to this, and we want <free time> to be the platform that allows viewers to get all of the content they want, easily and quickly, on one platform.

Today that content is still, by and large, broadcast TV. We each watch over four hours a day of it and rising, on average. But our customers also tell us that, beyond the broadcast services they love, they want access to a few extra online big brands that they also value. And online brands don’t come much bigger than YouTube, as the thousands of Twitter mentions of our deal on Monday goes to show.

And the technology choices we made 18 months ago when delivering <free time>, some of which were extremely risky at the time, have allowed us to deliver this. Not to labour the point, but open standards are at the heart of <free time>. <free time> is based on HbbTV, the hybrid TV standard which, although becoming increasingly accepted in Europe, has not yet been widely adopted in the UK, where most providers have chosen to use proprietary standards.

And we built our user interface in HTML5, a step few TV providers have taken. We chose to use HTML5 for a few reasons. While there was still some integration work to be done to add YouTube to <free time>, it was achieved far more quickly within an HTML5 framework than would otherwise have been possible (this also reduced the time that the rest of team Freesat had to suffer the awful, power ballard-centric music tastes of Raj, our technical lead, while the app was being tested).

HTML5 also gives us the advantage of flexibility and agility, which is crucial for players like us. And we think it looks great, and allows us to do lots of things with user interfaces that would not have been possible with proprietary technologies.

We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved with the YouTube app, but we certainly aren’t resting on our laurels. The new services and features we’re planning to add to the platform will all be about increasing choice, about giving our viewers more options to watch really desired content and, hopefully, putting an end to people thinking there’s never anything on TV.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

By Freesat