Go-Ahead Imminent for Project Canvas, But 2010 Release Unlikely

At the tail end of 2009 Project Canvas got an almost definitive go-ahead to launch from BBC governing body BBC Trust.

The Trust will finally end its year long consultation period on February 2. All being well, a decision will be reached shortly afterwards.

“If approved the next step is to build on conversations we are already having with the consumer electronics industry to cement the Canvas specification,” explains Richard Halton, programme director IPTV, BBC who is running the project on behalf of the six current shareholders while it remains on paper.

“A large part of that is the work being developed by the Digital TV Group (DTG) toward a connected TV standard to which all CE vendors are party. A parallel initiative is to launch an engagement programme for content providers informing them how they might access the platform and to publish a set of APIs they will need to take part.”

The lengthy consultation period, during which the Trust received 800 different representations and assessed the project’s public value and full market impact, may cause a delay in the introduction of Canvas STBs until after the vital Christmas 2010 period.

The BBC is in fact reigning back on that initial target saying it is “still their ambition” but that “the most important thing is to focus on delivering a platform that’s ready to give users a good experience.”

While Canvas is forced to wait in the wings, connected TV services from an array of CE vendors have time to take root. Samsung and Sony are particularly aggressive in this regard, having developed their own application stores for accessing web services and content via new TV displays. BSkyB is also readying its own VOD TV service via ethernet connections on Sky+ boxes.

“We are already dealing with a number of number of different manufacturers to make the iPlayer available,” says Halton. “Underpinning everything is the work of the DTG. It is devising a common piece of specification for the connected TV which Sony, Samsung and others are part of. It’s easier to work from a common template to make a wider range of content available.”

Canvas is designed to help public service broadcasters in the UK compete with pay TV platforms as online video-to-TV takes off, and may yet face a challenge from BSkyB which argues that public money shouldn’t be used to gain unfair market advantage.

The project will cost £115m ($185m) over the first four years, including a marketing budget of just over £48m ($77.3m) with £17m expected to be recouped by sale of listing on the platform. Partners include ITV, Channel 4, Five, BT and ISP TalkTalk although the door is open for others to join.

“At the point at which we get approval we will set up a separate limited company like Freeview and Freesat to promote Canvas to the consumer and to content providers,” says Halton. “The venture will be seperate to the BBC and governed by a board of directors comprising representatives of the partners.”

Adds Halton; “There will be services that offer something Canvas cannot but what will differentiate Canvas is its not for profit motive and a high-quality experience that’s really simple for the audience to understand. The test of its success will lie in its simplicity and the range of content services that its able to provide.”

With BBC iPlayer, complete with proven user-friendly interface and massive cross-platform marketing clout, credited with defining and in large part creating the UK market for online video consumption the impact of Canvas will be considerable.

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