This autumn will see a significant new service launch in the UK that reflects the growing interest in Hybrid Broadcast Broadband (HBB) but especially the potential for Freeview HD as a platform for distributing OTT services to television screens. VuTV, an OTT service provider targeting Freeview HD boxes and integrated TVs via a broadband connection, will launch with 13 channels streamed to a programme guide slot that opens up into a portal. The significant part (as streaming to Freeview HD set-tops is not new) is the channel owners making their content available: A+E Networks, Viacom International Media Networks and Turner Broadcasting.
Via channel 238 on Freeview HD devices shipped since 2012, viewers will be able to find streamed linear versions of Boomerang, Nick Jr., MTV, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, BIO, Comedy Central, CNN, Cartoonito, Crime & Investigation Network, History and H2. The channels are made available as a single bouquet (not a la carte) on subscription with monthly contracts. The channel count could rise even before the launch date.
VuTV expects to disrupt the status quo for paid television in the UK. These channels are currently found on ‘traditional’ Pay TV platforms, whether that is established giants like BSkyB or recent entrants like TalkTalk with its YouView-based subscription TV offer. The streaming services found on the UK’s mass-market HBB platforms (Freeview HD, YouView and <free time>) have so far fallen into two camps: catch-up services from the terrestrial giants (e.g. BBC iPlayer and ITV Player) and special interest (mainly overseas) channels targeting expat communities in the UK.
UKTV is making catch-up services for its popular Dave, Yesterday and Really channels available on YouView this year, the first signal that major channels outside the big five terrestrials are moving into the HBB marketplace with streaming services. The arrival of VuTV confirms that a whole tier of major pay channel brands are also taking the HBB market seriously. Moreover, it demonstrates a willingness to look beyond their current Pay TV partners and use ‘Connected TV’ as another route to market.
VuTV has not revealed its pricing yet but this is likely to be an example of ‘Pay TV Lite’, meaning a service with a limited content offer compared to the established Pay TV operators, but at a much lower fee. The combination of lower fee and low commitments (e.g. one month contracts) appeals to free-to-air homes who might want to upgrade to some paid content. Like in other markets, the success of OTT services like Netflix and LOVEFiLM indicates that there are plenty of free-to-air homes who are willing to pay a modest monthly fee for content.
VuTV is interesting because it is not a Netflix style package of movies and archive TV series. It will provide an interesting test of whether non-Pay TV homes are also interested in paying for a small selection of mainstream linear channels in a Connected TV setting. VuTV believes one market for its bouquet will be former Pay TV homes who have churned but would like still like a lower-cost pay offering for the right channels.
Visitors to IBC could see the VuTV service being demonstrated on the S&T (Strategy & Technology stand). The service is owned by S&T and Simplestream and operated by Synapse TV. S&T is a software company focused on interactive TV services and best known as a leader in MHEG-5 interactive TV solutions. Simplestream provides multi-platform live streaming and catch-up TV services to broadcast and media companies using its cloud-based CatchupTV, Media Manager and TVPlayer products.
These two companies formed a joint venture called Synapse TV that pools their respective technologies to help content owners get their content onto the Freeview HD platform and connected TVs as streaming services. Synapse TV also has the capability to provide simultaneous streaming of content to smartphones, tablets, games consoles and PCs. VuTV is the first implementation of a Synapse TV powered television service, though more will follow, the company says. The channels will be streamed at a fixed standard-definition bit rate of 1.5Mbps in MPEG-4 AVC/H.264.
The user interface for VuTV, which is effectively an OTT portal inside a programmed guide slot, is built using the MHEG standard. To begin with the navigation will be fairly simple with a Now-Next mini programme guide and a channel up/down zapping experience. Synapse TV wants to make this as close to the normal TV experience as possible. Clearly, promoting this service will be a key challenge but in their own advertising the channel owners will point to VuTV as another of the destinations where you can find their content.
For channel owners there are a few obvious benefits. This is a chance to try a new platform and market opportunity while avoiding over-the-air spectrum costs. The Synapse TV platform also provides useful viewing analytics like which homes are watching and when. Viewing within VuTV will be measured by BARB, the audience measurement system advertisers mainly refer to.
According to Dan Finch, Director of Simplestream: “We work with a wide range of broadcasters to stream their linear and on-demand TV to multiple devices. The content owners we engaged with embraced the idea of targeting the Freeview HD market with their portfolio of channels. As the public get wiser to connecting up their TVs and the TVs get smarter, it is a great opportunity for channel providers to tap into the Freeview market and gain access to real-time viewing data of their channels that can be used to help shape their own marketing strategy”.