Has YouView failed?

Andrew Rowland | 24 Feb 2016 | 0 comments

It was all supposed to be a revolution in TV viewing. The traditional way of receiving TV over the airwaves was to be married with the new: TV via broadband – TV that wasn’t constrained by a broadcasting schedule; TV you could watch when and where you wanted. It was to be the UK’s first all-encompassing hybrid television system, combining the old with on-demand players like BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub (or ITVPlayer as it was called then).

Project Canvas got off the ground in 2008 as a joint venture between the BBC, ITV and BT because each manufacturer and broadcaster was doing their own thing, and what was needed was a universal standard, combining catch-up and on-demand viewing with the simplicity of Freeview, which the chairman, Alan Sugar, hoped it would replace. Consistency and integration were the watchwords. It was to be the main platform for free television, though pay services were not excluded.

When it eventually appeared in 2012, rebranded as YouView, two years late and now joined by Channel 4 and TalkTalk, it was with a sense of disappointment. You see, at the time Project Canvas started, there was a great deal of discussion and experimentation about how viewers could access programmes when they were no longer tied to a schedule with broadcast times. How could the broadcasters make it easy to discover programmes and how would viewers cope with so many programmes available at once? For digital TV services like Freeview, the main user interface is the EPG, the electronic programme guide that lists all the programmes to be broadcast over the coming week on all channels. Displayed either as a list of what is being broadcast now and coming up next, or as a grid with the times shown across the top like an on-screen Radio Times, it allows viewers to see at a glance what each channel is offering now, or to select a future programme and have the machine record it (if you have one that does recordings). But this whole time-based concept becomes irrelevant when you can watch whenever you want, accessing the broadcasters’ online library or your own recordings. An EPG clearly would not do for the world of on-demand.

The second problem the designers at YouView faced was that the on-demand offerings were fragmented. To find something to watch you might first go into BBC iPlayer, then if nothing grabbed you see what ITV Hub or All 4 has, and so on. The prospect of a platform that united all these different services and the regular broadcasts into a single, coherent experience was an enticing one.

There was no shortage of ideas being tried out. The American Tivo box pioneered recommendations based on your viewing habits. Other systems tried highlighting popular programmes; others again allowed you to set up a whole series of searches, based on genres, subjects, favourite actors and so on, all of which fed into a screenful of suggestions you see when you turn on the TV. And all of them featured a regular search for when you know the programme you want.

So it was to my considerable surprise that what YouView finally unveiled was... a time-based EPG. It preserved the one thing that no longer counted, and even made it its big selling point. As you know from the TV adverts, YouView’s party trick is that you can scroll the EPG backwards to browse programmes that have already been shown. Select one and the box fires up the relevant player which in turn plays the programme. That takes care of ‘catch-up’ viewing, and isn’t too bad if you only just missed the programme you are after. But it is a lot of scrolling if it was some time ago or you aren’t sure when it went out. Wasn’t the whole idea of programmes at a specific time what catch-up viewing was supposed to free us from?

In any case, an EPG isn’t great when it comes to finding programmes that would interest you. There is too much scrolling around, both to cover the number of days in the guide and the number of channels there are. All you see is the bare programme title: you have to select a programme (and usually press the Information button on your remote) to see the details. Things don’t catch your eye like they do in, say, a paper listings magazine. This is the whole problem those alternatives were trying to address. My advice: if you want to record a known programme, don’t scroll: use search. Times and dates just don’t figure any more. See: Watch better TV and save money.

Now, even I would not want to lose the EPG entirely, at least as long as linear programming (broadcasting to a schedule) is with us. But it surprises me that YouView made it the centrepiece of their service. For a system that is supposed to take the audience on a journey from traditional schedules to the world of on-demand, it seems strange not to start further along that road. Their market research back in 2010 must have been saying that people weren’t ready to abandon the EPG yet. In fact, I know plenty of more elderly people who still haven’t even got to grips with the EPG, and just view the first five channels using the numbers on their remote. (I blame the engineers who delivered their set top boxes when the analogue broadcasts were switched off. So many didn’t take the time to explain the box properly.) I admit that not everyone wants to embrace the brave new world! YouView must be doing something right, because the rival systems, Freeview and Freesat, have both introduced scroll back EPGs too in order to compete – Freeview Play and Freetime respectively.

The other big surprise for me was that the individual players (apps that play on-demand and catch-up line content) are still there in all their glory. Until recently there was no unified place where you can see the on-demand offerings across all the broadcasters. Each one was still a separate visit. But YouView gets one thing right: the search facility encompasses all the channels, with separate results for on-demand and ‘Now and Next’ – the latter confusingly named because it actually covers the whole week ahead.

But it is easy to overlook something else that goes missing when you abandon the idea of a broadcast schedule. Imagine an interface that brings to the fore programmes that might interest you, based on recommendation, past viewing or searches. It doesn’t matter to the viewer when, or whether, those programmes are broadcast. And significantly, it doesn’t matter to them on which channel they appear. If the viewer sees an undifferentiated list of programs selected by criteria they have selected themselves, the concept of a channel brand also goes out the window. If losing the EPG was a step too far for the audience, losing clearly defined channels was a step too far for the broadcasters. It matters if you are trying to sell advertising, or even to justify the licence fee. So we still have the separate players, each leaving the broadcaster free to develop their own look and feel, and change it when they want. Perhaps lack of consistency here shouldn’t trouble us too much, though I feel a generic interface would have been easier for viewers. It is annoying when buttons on the remote do different things depending on whether you are watching a recording or catch-up. At least broadcasters achieve consistency with their players on other platforms like smart TVs and computers.

Things are changing. YouView has now added a Discover option on the main menu, that lets you browse all the on-demand programs in one place. You start by selecting a main category, e.g. TV, Films, then select a sub-category, e.g. Comedy, Drama, Children, and keep drilling down till you see something you like. Programs are represented by picture tiles as well as title, and branding is maintained by the channel icon in the corner of each tile. So the platform is slowly maturing. Perhaps the next step is to make Discover the default option rather than the Guide, and extend it to upcoming broadcast programmes too.

But are events leaving YouView behind? As I wrote in my last blog, BBC3 has already made the leap to on-demand only, doubtless only the first. Will broadcasters be able to maintain their brands or establish new ones once the channels have left the EPG, and how will they find new viewers once their listings are in a different place?

One final thought: Do I think that YouView is bad? Not at all. It is a good service and it works well. Indeed, PlusNet has recently adopted it as well as BT and TalkTalk, so it hasn't failed as a platform. This article is not a review of the service – I’ll keep that for another blog, as well as a comparison with its rivals. It did deliver on its main promise: my gripe is that it was not revolutionary enough. Do I think that it could have been designed better, demoting the EPG from centre stage? I think it should. But it might have left parts of the audience behind, and people do not change their habits easily. Its influence is easy to see: both Freeview and Freesat have adopted the scroll back EPG, thus cementing the whole idea of a time-based user interface at a time when TV technology is moving away from time-based schedules. We should be getting familiar with new ways of discovering programmes (which EPGs are poor at anyway), and in that sense, it has failed to fulfil its promise.

© Andrew Rowland 2016

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