Local TV Groups Looking YouView’s Gift Horse In The Mouth

Some people don’t know an opportunity when it’s staring them in the face.

A group of 14 local-town TV and news operators has written a letter to The Times grumbling the YouView connected-TV joint venture is a “cartel” and “an attempt by some of the biggest players in the business to hijack this fledgeling (sic) market”.

This is the latest opposition, following a growing number of competition complaints to Ofcom, including those from Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED), IP Vision, Six TV, United For Local Television and the Open Source Consortium.

Doubtless, YouView’s co-owners – the BBC, ITV (LSE: ITV), Channel 4, Channel 5, BT (NYSE: BT), TalkTalk and Arqiva – are certainly trying to protect their privileged positions within the Freeview ecosystem.

But the letter signatories, led by Kent’s KM Group news publisher, are failing to acknowledge that YouView is, in fact, especially keen to carry independent local programming, amongst many new, third-party IPTV streams.

At the recent briefing to unveil the brand for what had been called Project Canvas, CEO Richard Halton was asked specifically about this potential, including about the prominence of such channels relative to core channels in the system…

“On Freeview, it’s not clear that they would get access at all – you need to be a big player to get access to one of those slots.

“YouView will solve a lot of those problems for you. I’ve always thought that local services would benefit most.

We’re building a system that really understands regionality. Your system will understand where it is, will be able to look up where it is by IP. We’ve thought very hard about that functionality to enable regionality. You will have a much more regional perspective.”

When UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt this week scaled back his ambitions for nationwide local TV channels in to more modest, IPTV-delivered services that might “exploit the potential of new platform technologies such as YouView”, YouView issued an immediate press release in which Halton sang from the same hymnsheet…

YouView will breakdown many of the existing barriers to entry for local TV providers. It will make it easier for viewers to discover and interact with localised content and open up the television set to all kinds of new content producers.

“YouView has the potential to provide a new, alternative platform for local TV services of the kind that Hunt outlined today by providing a simple and direct route to the television set for local TV operators with much lower associated costs than a traditional linear business model.”

Indeed, the letter-writers, too, appear to welcome Hunt’s revised ambition, the genesis of which, by a panel led by Lazard media banker Nicholas Shott, YouView has been involved in.

Although YouView will retain the Freeview EPG channel numbering for linear channels, which will continue to be received over broadcast DTT, it also presents a new opportunity for third-party content makers to be distributed through add-on channels or applications.

So, rather than carp from the sidelines about abstract notions of “cartels”, the likes of KM Group – which this year forced the closure of a council-run Kent online TV venture but which has been slower to launch its own such initiative – should get stuck in and embrace the opportunity.

True, YouView’s olive branch may yet be another, BBC-style, open-arms, dead-end platitude to industry. Halton is also talking up the prospect of YouView carrying creative content from institutions like Royal Opera House – but the BBC’s previous offers to host British Film Institute content on iPlayer, to share news facilities with broadcasters, to share iPlayer with counterparts and to ingest commercial broadcasters’ VOD listings in to iPlayer have all come to little.

Regardless, though, there’s little about whatever “cartel” YouView may or may not prove to be that should preclude it carrying local IPTV from these letter-writers.

Their opposition is not universal at the local level. This week, Looking Local, a group enabling existing interactive TV services for over 120 local authorities (no wonder KM Group objects!), declared its support…

YouView will help give us a much more direct route to viewers while also helping us to meet the challenge to reach out to those that are digitally excluded. We look forward to finding out more from YouView on how we can get on board.”

As Shott’s interim review conclusions have speculated, YouView could offer local media groups an opportunity to recoup absent advertising income. Much about how YouView will handle third-party IPTV channels and applications remains unclear – but better that third parties engage with that process as soon as possible.

YouView is due to announce its first partners, and make a pitch to others, in the next few weeks. What the letter makes clear is, some of the smaller local TV groups, so far, are out of the loop.

They should hold YouView to its offer and get stuck in. They want it, YouView wants it, and the government wants it.