Later this summer BSkyB rolls out a package of new broadband TV services which allow many of its subscribers to download films and sport whenever they want via a broadband internet connection. The move comes hot on the heels of Channel 4's launch last month of broadband channel FourDocs, the BBC's upgrading of its broadband TV offering and the arrival of MTV's broadband TV network, MTV Overdrive. Broadband TV, it seems, is coming of age, although unanswered questions - such as how broadband will sit alongside traditional broadcasting - remain.
Broadband TV is TV delivered to the home via a broadband internet connection rather than terrestrial or satellite analogue or digital broadcast, or cable TV. Interest in broadband TV is growing because of the rapid rate at which domestic broadband internet connections are growing - Britain's broadband market is currently growing at 20% a year, faster than anywhere else in the world - and as internet connection speeds increase, broadband delivery of larger pieces of content such as TV programming becomes increasingly feasible.
It is now generally accepted that there are two forms of broadband-delivered TV. The first, broadband TV, involves TV delivered via a broadband connection to a viewer's PC - C4's FourDocs model. The second, internet protocol TV (IPTV), involves TV delivered via broadband to a TV linked to a set-top box - the model used by HomeChoice, the on-demand service currently available in 2.4 million London homes.
While both forms are broadband-delivered, each has different potential because of the different expectations viewers have when sitting in front of a PC and a TV. PC viewing tends to involve the viewer being more attentive but for shorter bursts of time; TV viewing is more about sitting back and being entertained. So what broadband delivery of TV there is tends to involve factual content, video streaming or programme clips (rather than entire programmes) to a PC, and entertainment content (on-demand movies or music videos, for example) to an IPTV-enabled TV.
"With the rapid uptake of broadband in the UK, we see significant potential for broadband TV and IPTV," says Chris Bunyan, director of internet at NTL. Already 1.4 million of NTL's 3.2 million customers are broadband customers; 30% of these already watch TV content via the internet each week. "Today, the sort of programming you get via broadband for the TV is different from the TV services available via PC," he adds. "In the future, however, there will be greater overlap."
One of the first British broadcasters to invest in broadband TV was the BBC. It launched its first broadband TV service four years ago making selected content available to broadband users via the http://www.bbc.co.ukwebsite. The fledgling service comprised limited broadband content - news, sport and some entertainment clips - available to viewers via a pop-up screen appearing on the PC desktop.
"Since then, our broadband service has grown significantly as programme-makers have started to create broadband consoles [the name the BBC gives to what is, in effect, a micro-site dedicated to broadband content spun off from a particular programme-related web site] as a matter of course," says BBC new media head of business development Jane Weedon.
"We've knitted together assorted content into a complete broadband offering and, in June, redesigned the service to make it far easier to navigate. We're also now featuring the best of broadband TV content available elsewhere (from non-BBC sites). From September it will provide the platform for the next stage of our trial of the Interactive Media Player (IMP), which will allow people to download entire programmes once they have been broadcast on TV."
For the BBC, broadband TV is about serving viewers' interests by making programme material available more flexibly. For a commercial broadcaster like MTV, however, it's about holding on to viewers at a time when there have never been so many distractions luring them elsewhere.
Providing TV content across all possible distribution platforms is now essential for broadcasters as broadband penetration and mobile phone use rise, believes Jason Hirschhorn, senior vice-president, digital media, for MTV Networks in the US. "Increasingly, the entertainment business is about time competition for an individual's attention," he says. "Rather than expect viewers to watch us on TV throughout the day, we have to go to them. And our research shows that away from your heaviest viewing times - in the evening and late night, for example - viewers will be available online."
MTV launched MTV Overdrive, a network of six broadband TV channels, in the US in April. "As a video-based business, the rapid uptake of broadband [in the US] has meant finally, we can now be what we want to be online," Hirschhorn says. At launch, MTV Overdrive was accessible only via a PC. Soon, however, it will be available via Microsoft's Media Centre which allows users to manage and navigate all forms of home entertainment content from a TV. Plans for a UK launch are being considered.
A challenge, Hirschhorn concedes, is striking the right balance of content. On the one hand, a broadcaster must offer enough that's new to make its broadband TV services attractive; on the other, however, it cannot afford to cannibalise existing broadcast TV channels. It's a concern shared by C4 which plans to start commissioning original programming exclusive to broadband users later this year (see below).
Broadcasters must think carefully about the best ways of using broadband, says C4's managing director of new media, Andy Taylor. "Our current belief is that we can use broadband both as a commercial opportunity and as a way to help fulfil our public service remit," he explains. "At the moment we're using broadband to offer access to free and paid-for programme clips, and video streaming. But we are also using it to nurture new talent and educate, through FourDocs."
One of Taylor's goals is to develop a comprehensive catch-up service. "If someone missed episode two of a new C4 drama then they're more likely to come back for episode three if they can get hold of what they've missed via broadband," he believes. But scheduling just when to make programmes available needs careful consideration if broadband is to complement rather than cannibalise existing broadcast services.
For the time being, the current rights situation is holding C4 back, Taylor says. "Rights to broadband exploitation of TV content are currently in 'hold back' - this means that neither C4 nor the independent producers it works with can do anything without coming together programme by programme, producer by producer," he explains. "As we work with 350 indies it's going to be a very long process before we can provide the catch-up TV service we would like to as, unlike the BBC, we don't own the bulk of the programming we broadcast."
As broadcasters explore different broadband TV models, others in the marketplace are pushing ahead with IPTV. One of the first IPTV players to launch in the UK was HomeChoice, which relaunched in its current form - providing 50 traditional channels plus a further 40 non-linear on-demand channels - in mid-2004. All of its services are broadband-delivered to a set-top box connected to the user's TV.
"Our version of broadband TV is redefining TV by providing another delivery platform," says Jonathan Sykes, HomeChoice executive director of content and strategy. "We offer viewers another route into the digital and pay-TV market." Sykes welcomes moves by broadcasters such as the BBC and C4 to explore the potential of broadband delivery via the internet. Meanwhile Sky's decision to significantly expand the broadband TV services available from the Sky One and Sky Sports websites with the addition of 200 films to be made available on demand to over half of its 7.7 million subscribers will certainly help raise further broadband TV's profile.
TV industry outsiders, including software giant Microsoft - which for years has tried to break into TV and has recently invested heavily in its Microsoft TV division - and major telcos such as BT, are also eager to push ahead with IPTV, the latter launching a service next summer. For the telcos it's all about developing new revenue streams. This is great news for broadcasters and producers as IPTV is another distribution platform, but it also raises a fundamental challenge: just who will be in control? With broadband TV, content owners can stay close to the viewer - directly controlling how their content is used and "owning" the viewer relationship via a website. With IPTV, however, the power shifts in favour of the owner of the set-top box - a clear parallel with Sky.
For the time being it's too early to say how broadband TV and IPTV will pan out, according to David Mercer, principal analyst at Strategy Analytics, a global research and consulting firm. Strategy Analytics recently predicted the number of IPTV set-top box subscribers worldwide will grow from fewer than 2 million in 2004 to 12 million by 2010 - a conservative estimate given another analyst, Multimedia Research Group, is now projecting 25 million IPTV homes by 2008.
"Without doubt, content owners will have a critical role to play both in the development of broadband TV and IPTV. The challenge for broadcasters will be to decide which way they can get a better relationship with their viewers, and a dilution of their relationship with the viewer might not be in their best interests," he says. "The bottom line, however, is that TV is being redefined and broadband delivery of TV is a fundamental part of that redefinition."
A broadcaster's broadband TV strategy: Channel 4
Channel 4's broadband TV service, available at http://www.channel4.com, was launched three years ago as a joint-venture with technology company Real Networks, with which the channel shared risk and split revenue.
Initially, the broadband service was solely commercial. C4 charged viewers£5 per month for broadband access to extra material such as behind the scenes footage from Big Brother or old editions of Wife Swap, for example.
Earlier this year, however, C4 greenlit significant new investment to upgrade its broadband infrastructure. C4's broadband TV service was overhauled - this time without the involvement of any external partner - and repositioned. It now has a commercial and public service remit.
The first manifestation of this new strategy was broadband content around the latest series of Big Brother. As well as live streaming, C4 is using broadband TV to sell clips of highlights from the previous day's Big Brothercoverage. The upgraded broadband infrastructure allows C4 to package content more flexibly than before. Big Brother fans, for example, can buy either a series pass for£14.99 to access all broadband TV content or a day pass for£1.99. Other programme content can be offered free in exchange for the viewer's email address, or free if bundled with sponsorship or advertising.
The second manifestation of the channel's new broadband strategy was the launch of FourDocs through interactive production company, Magic Lantern. FourDocs is a broadband TV platform for experienced and upcoming documentary-makers to showcase and discuss their work. It is also intended for public consumption by viewers interested in factual programming. Beyond these initiatives, C4 will start to commission original material to be delivered via broadband later this year and will look at content of varying lengths and styles to ascertain what works best. It welcomes ideas from indies as well as specialist new media outfits. "We're looking to future-proof ourselves in the run up to digital switchover. We believe broadband will prove to be an interesting market opportunity for us - both in terms of our commercial aims and public service remit," says C4's managing director of new media, Andy Taylor.
"FourDocs is innovative, risky, new to the market, a way to nurture talent and educate, and we have no set revenue targets. It's a way to stimulate the new media production community as C4 stimulated the independent production company back in 1982."