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


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.


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