Canvas Sets Out to Meet the Connected Content Challenge

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[Editor's Note: As of Thursday, September 16, Canvas announced that it will rebrand itself as YouView.)

AMSTERDAM—Canvas—the proposal to bring internet connectivity to the UK's free to air TV platforms—this week became a fully independent joint venture directed by a board comprised of members of the founding companies BBC, BT, TalkTalk, Channel 4, ITV, Arqiva, and Five. Richard Halton, BBC Programme Director, IPTV, is expected to be named CEO and to steer the project to next spring's launch. Streaming Media caught up with him at IBC and spoke about the next stage in its development.

"Since last IBC it's been fantastic is to see the energy and excitement building around connected TV," Halton enthused. "If the Canvas proposals have achieved one thing it's to put connected TV right on the agenda of the manufacturing industry-and importantly the content industry."

A Partnership Between Technology and Creative
"No-one should forget how big a mindset shift that is for the creative industries," he stresses. "The consumer electronics industry typically runs head of the creative industries. Canvas shows that the creative industries are sitting up and paying attention."

It's been a lengthy and controversial project to date, delayed while the BBC Trust deliberated its agreement and faced with objections in the early stages from the manufacturing community and network operators.

UK regulatory body Ofcom currently has three complaints about the project before it (from Virgin Media, IPVision, and Six TV) while BSkyB has also voiced concerns about the project's potentially anticompetitive market impact.

Halton though is confident that Canvas won't go the way of online video aggregation proposal Kangaroo and be forced into last minute cancellation.

"I don't think there's a danger of that," he says. "I think the layman can see the motivation behind each of those challenges."

Canvas has submitted the last of its 14 specification documents to the Digital TV Group (DTG) and they will then publish a core spec with additional elements provided by Canvas to prepare manufacturers and content providers to support it. Cisco, Humax, and Technicolor have so far been named as Canvas' innovation partners, but other manufacturers have expressed interest.

The first wave of devices will be internet-enabled set-top boxes, most likely with PVRs and twin tuners. Going forward the plan is to release fully integrated Canvas TVs.

 "In order to succeed, the connected TV has to tap into the living room TV experience," Halton says. "It is not not just about attaching a pipe to a TV; it's about content that works in that context and it is for content makers to imagine and to bring to screen the possibilities this entails."

Halton argues that what gives Canvas the edge—and its main raison d'etre—is that the platform is designed and owned by companies that understand content. There are already discussions about how producers can take big programme brands like The X Factor and enrich them for a connected TV environment.

"We will have all of this fantastic content and we will have developed a platform that really works for content providers," he says. "The only way to drive connected TV to the home is to make viewing a better experience. Connected TV is actually a poor term to describe what I believe reflects a fundamental transformation of the TV experience. That's where the challenge passes from device and software manufacturers to content owners who need to devise content propositions that take advantage of the platform's capabilities."

What About Bandwidth?
If Canvas takes off in the way that the iPlayer did, the ability for ISPs to deliver on the greater demand for bandwidth could become an issue. How would Halton reconcile that demand?

"There's a constant push-pull between networks investing in infrastructure and promoting it to their consumers ahead of it being required (Virgin's 50-100Mbps pipes, for example) and content providers making content available that challenge network infrastructure (the iPlayer for example). Historically there's been a healthy phased investment by networks in more bandwidth.

"We published the traffic volumes we envisaged in our initial proposals and ISP feedback has been positive. A provable demand for network capacity is a good thing since network operators might take out a massive investment in infrastructure and then discover that no one wants to use it. With Canvas being as open as possible they can match their investment with likely demand much more easily. As the internet becomes ubiquitous they can then differentiate broadband products to the customer.

"In the longer term you'll see broadband speeds top out. No one expects to pay for electricity by the speed it comes out of the wall-you expect to pay for how much you use. We'll see that sort of payment being introduced for broadband services."

Canvas will emerge into a market already competitive with connected TV services or devices from Sony, Samsung, Yahoo, and Google. According to Halton, many IPTV services to date have been too web-centric. "You may be able to connect a TV to the internet but then realise there's not a lot of content to find or that content is hard too find," he says. "Canvas will be a televisual experience, rather than a web-type environment. Canvas is also there to meet the needs of the Freeview audience who have already decided not to subscribe to pay-TV from Sky or Virgin-we're not competing head to head." 

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