Sky Takes On-Demand Content To New Viewers With ioko's Help

An announcement at IBC 2009 shows how serious Sky is about taking its content to those who might not have the desire—or ability—to use the traditional Sky satellite-based television service to watch premium content.

The company, which had partnered with ioko several years ago to bring its satellite service to the web in the form of a web-based catch-up service, has seen this service flourish and is now turning its attention to both other platforms for the catch-up service as well as expanding to include live premium content in a package that may appeal to non-subscribers who want to watch exclusive content such as Sky1, Sky Sports, Sky Movies, or Sky News.

Since the previous PC-based solution was only available to Sky subscribers, the move to put live and catch-up/on-demand content on the Xbox, Wii, and a few other platforms appears to be part of Sky's bigger strategy to maximize sale of content regardless of platform.

"This is the first time a customer can get the same Sky content without needing to subscribe to the satellite service," said Fearghal Kelly, ioko VP of media solutions. "While we're not privy to Sky's business decisions, the fact that they have footprint in both the UK and on the Continent means that they may be able to significantly expand their customer base for premium content."

A technology demonstration of the Xbox version of the new Sky Player was available in ioko's booth. The Sky portion was integrated nicely amongst the gaming and other entertainment options on the Xbox, which was ikon's intent—to make the Sky live and on-demand experience on an Xbox as simple as choosing to play a video game with the Xbox controller.

"We know that the millions of Xbox users in the UK already know how to navigate with the standard Xbox controller," said Kelly, "so we're not joking when we say the new service is so simple that even a child could use it."

For those watching a previously-aired program, using the Xbox as a catch-up service, the ioko Sky Player for Xbox will track viewing length, allowing the user to stop viewing the program one day and then resume viewing the next. For live content, users can select channels via a simplified electronic program guide (EPG) that categorizes content via genres. The current version of the technology demonstration uses Windows Media 9 Advanced codecs, available in three user-selectable bandwidths.

Not only is the platform going to be available within the Sky business footprint, but other news from the IBC show seems to indicate that Sky and ioko will offer the platform (including desktop, laptop, gaming systems) to other Pay TV operators outside of the UK. This Sky news comes just days after the BBC announced it, too, would be offering the BBC iPlayer to other television operators outside of the UK.

The BBC's Erik Huggers, director of future media and technology platform, noted that the iPlayer's popularity as a catch-up service for desktop and laptop computers has generated demand for viewing content on other platforms.

“We now have to port the iPlayer into 23 different flavours of devices," said Huggers, "all using different codecs and file formats. Yet we must do this, as we have this demand on us that we must make our content available universally.”

While the BBC Trust has yet to approve the idea, Huggers envisions the BBC could work with iTV—whose Coronation Street is a widely searched request on the BBC iPlayer—and other broadcasters to share the burden of porting an open version of the iPlayer to multiple platforms.

For its part, though, Sky seems to have the lead on porting to a variety of devices, and seems to have settled on H.264 as a codec that will allow it to port to the Wii and possibly the Playstation 3 (PS3), both of which can already support H.264, although the Wii's lower-powered processor won't support full-screen H.264 video playback, according to Kelly. He also said plans are being made to implement H.264 and Smooth Streaming on the Xbox in the near future, although probably not in time for the initial launch of the Xbox service, which is anticipated to be within a month's time.

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