It integrated live and on-demand TV for the first time. But, a decade after Lord Sugar launched the hybrid service, supported by both broadcasters and internet service providers, its future as a standalone platform is anything but certain.
Dubbed “Freeview 2.0” by some at the time, the idea was for YouView to be available both as a standalone product and available through internet service providers, who were launching their own TV services at the time.
Born out of Project Canvas, YouView was fiercely opposed by Virgin Media and Sky. Nevertheless, in July 2012, just before the Olympics, the service was launched. Supported by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus BT and TalkTalk, YouView brought together Freeview and online services in a way that hadn’t been done before. Piggybacking on the terrestrial signal, it was the first platform to offer a backward EPG – allowing viewers to go back in time on the guide to find programmes available on catch-up TV services.
Broadcasters get cold feet
But within just a few years, it became clear that BT and TalkTalk were dominating YouView sales, and the broadcaster’s dream of providing an ISP-neutral way of accessing services was fading.
In 2014, the broadcasters slashed their stake in YouView, branching off to develop a service that would meet their requirements.
A year later, Freeview Play arrived, a service that is now built-in to most UK smart TVs, with the notable exception of Samsung. Since then, under the umbrella of Digital UK, the development of satellite platform Freesat is now under the same roof. This provides the prospect of a single platform that will allow viewers to connect their TV to either a satellite dish or terrestrial TV aerial in addition to their internet connection to receive the same set of free-to-air channels and streaming services, with the same interface and support underpinning it all.
Despite this development, broadcasters including the BBC and ITV continue to support YouView.
In March 2022, YouView’s shareholders agreed to provide financial support for the platform for two more years.
This contrasts with a five year deal struck in 2014 and a three year deal in 2019. The ever shorter financial agreements show how shareholders are less and less willing to provide long-term support.
Most recent developments have been in favour of BT, who almost certainly look set to take what’s left of YouView.
Ten years on, and with all the main free-to-air broadcasters putting their weight behind Freeview Play, what about the other companies that have supported YouView?
Cutting the link with Freeview.
BT is pressing ahead with a migration to an all IP-platform to mark the 10th anniversary, putting it on a par with the IPTV-based Sky Glass and Puck and Virgin’s forthcoming IPTV-based product.
Anyone with BT TV currently receives channels in the number range of 1-299 and 600-799 through Freeview. Channels in the range 300-599 are delivered via multicast through the user’s internet connection.
In the near future, BT TV subscribers will begin to receive Freeview channels via their internet connection instead of their aerial. At a stroke, the coverage limitations of Freeview will be removed, although potentially replaced by local broadband connectivity issues.
A key difference to Freeview’s planned IP-fallback, is that once BT switches more services to multicast, terrestrial signals become the fallback, when online connectivity fails. The IP-delivered multicast channels will offer viewers a greater choice of HD services than can be offered by Freeview.
The downside is that in the future, viewers who terminate their BT TV subscription may be left with a useless box. Current receivers can still be used for Freeview terrestrial TV if users cancel their TV subscription.
Away from delivering Freeview channels, BT has now allowed most of its original pay TV carriage contracts to expire. Instead, BT TV’s current pay TV service resells Sky’s NOW streaming service. Many channels that were previously available on BT TV outside of a NOW subscription have now ceased. (Some channels were withdrawn on other platforms at the same time.)
Leaving the delivery of most pay TV channels to NOW, BT is working on securing access to streaming services. A deal to form a joint sports venture with Discovery is due to open up discovery+ to BT TV users soon.
After a decade of offering YouView-based TV services, TalkTalk recently launched its first 4K UHD TV box – powered by Netgem’s connected TV service, not YouView. The company has committed to support YouView for at least two years. However, with reports of Vodafone and Sky showing interest in the company, the future of TalkTalk’s involvement in YouView is anyone’s guess.
Closed YouView-based service.
BT subsidiary Plusnet piggybacked on BT’s YouView platform, offering a ‘lite’ version of the TV service, with fewer subscription channels. Essentially, it was a way to boost BT Sport’s reach, with a few extra channels thrown in.
Plusnet shut down the service last year. Ahead of its closure, the number of pay TV channels began to dwindle as carriage contracts expired.
Sony became the only significant TV manufacturer to embed YouView on some of its smart TVs. This allowed consumers to access YouView without requiring a BT TV or TalkTalk TV subscription. Sony’s strategy appears to be unclear. Freeview Play is built-in to some of its other smart TVs. As a consequence, potential buyers need to look carefully at each TV specifications to see which service they’re getting.
In 2021, the arrival of YouView was delayed on its 2021 models until just before Christmas. It’s unclear whether Sony will choose YouView or Freeview Play in future years.
YouView partnership served its purpose?
Of all those making YouView devices available to users, only BT has a clear long-term plan at this stage.
And if YouView does become BT’s platform only, this raises questions as to whether it really was worth the money for the broadcasters? Have they not effectively subsidised the creation of another pay TV platform?
The broadcasters justify their stake due to concerns over US streaming services undermining prominence.
Ofcom rules dictate that the main broadcasters must appear in the top slots of your TV guide. Typically either channels 1-5 or 101-105. There’s also rules surrounding some of the offshoot channels. But in the online world, this doesn’t apply. Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video have secured deals to ensure they get dedicated remote control buttons. The deals also ensure prominence on home screens and TV recommendation pages.
By continuing to partner with YouView, broadcasters can continue to influence decisions over the direction of the platform. This includes ensuring their services continue to gain prominence above other streaming services.
But Ofcom has laid down recommendations to the Government on how prominence can be ensured across all platforms in the future. If these recommendations become law, then the YouView partnership will have served its purpose. Public broadcasters can be assured of prominence regardless of platform. BT can continue to develop the platform on its own; the broadcasters can move on to focus solely on a universal access platform for public broadcasting.
by Iain Hatton / Features writer, RXTV