Q&A: BBC's Richard Halton on Canvas
DS: The BBC Executive's report came out in July, addressing some of the concerns around Canvas, but what reaction have you had to the report since then from the key stakeholders?
RH: "I think it is fair to say that what we published in July was really a result of our negotiations with service providers and key stakeholders up until that point. I hope that for most of those groups, what we published was not for the large part new news. I hope that what comes across in that document is that Canvas generally is intended as something that sustains the choice that consumers have in the UK for television platforms and also extends the functionality, in the case of Freeview and Freesat, for the platforms they already have. For the content providers, it really just takes the principles underpinning those platforms, free and open to all, to the logical next step.
"If Canvas is successful, then it represents a massive opportunity for content providers, particularly new players who will never get anywhere near the television because of the costs of doing something on a linear channel. We have talked before about Canvas democratising the living room and I think it really is about that television experience and about what television could be like. If everyone was connected and the barriers for service providers were really low then that would allow them to bring content to even wider audiences. In a way, for those groups Canvas just sets out a creative challenge to realise what their services would look and feel like in the living room. That is the way that the web is developing. We hope that the message for content provider and service providers is that this is very exciting and real opportunity. The feedback we have had from indies, studios and content retailers of all description has been really positive. Normally it's a question of 'when can we get going?' or 'what do we do next to get on the platform?' Which is great."
DS: It came across in the report that Canvas will support a lot of different ways to access the content, especially in terms of monetisation options. How important was it to keep those options open?
RH: "The difference for Canvas is that there is never going to be a opening for a Canvas initiative in that. Pay television platforms historically have had to manage and run billing systems, but with an IP connected platform that doesn't have to be the case. If you want to have a subscription model then you have to have a dedicated connection to the box. There are technical things that you need to do to enable that, but the thing about Canvas is that it passes all the management of billing systems and so on over to the content provider and Canvas isn't going to get in the way. The venture doesn't seek to get a revenue stream from content providers."
DS: We recently had a story on the site about a production house called Barking Angel in collaboration with digital agency Worth premiering a new youth drama solely online. Do you see Canvas as being able to support things like this in the future?
RH: "I think it creates an opportunity for them. But at the end of the day if you look at the economics of professional production, most independent producers are heavily reliant on the funding they get from broadcasters for the first window on linear television. Therefore, I wouldn't want to say that in one stroke Canvas will change the economics of television production, because it just doesn't. But obviously if you are creating a platform which takes content into the living room where people would watch drama and long form programming, then I think it is a much more exciting prospect than just producing for the web where you know that it is only ever going to make it to a PC in a study or a lounge.
"I think that it is a different audience opportunity to the economics of a production. From a BBC perspective, I can't see many indies saying 'I don't want that six million quid you promised us for that new drama, we'll just publish it ourselves'. It's an expensive business making content and the money will have to come in up front. That said you quoted an example and I think there are others of people taking a risk and publishing content themselves and earning the revenues directly. That is really interesting and will prove really important."
DS: But I guess it is still an evolving story, right?
RH: "Yes, that's right. The BBC broadcasts a programme and places the marketing around that programme to help create a brand that at some point will have value to the person who created it. There are all sorts of things that they can go on to do with it. Hopefully, Canvas will keep the linear channels fresh and allow them to do what they do with interactivity and so on, then you can get the best of both worlds. You make standard television interesting, but at the same time create a platform for those brands to be taken in various different ways."
DS: That's great, but can you understand the concerns being expressed, particularly by Sky, about the level of control in Canvas?
RH: "We have been having a lot of dialogue in the background with all of these companies. We are helping them really understand what we are promoting. Capturing the interest of so many groups in the industry is always difficult. At the end of the day, the open model we are promoting could be threatening. However, open it may be, you look at an open source model and you would think that this would be the most liberating thing ever, but for anyone with pay business models who have built those up over many years to control their intellectual property, its an absolute disaster. I understand that.
"We need to make it quite clear and explicit - and hopefully what we published in July will have gone some way towards that aim - that this platform is about involving other ISPs and service providers. To be fair, all of those parties needed to see the terms like that, and I think that Sky's position in the run up to July was understandable. They wanted to be sure that they understood what the nature of the proposals involved and then form a view on that part. But hopefully what we have published will allow them to do that. I think it interesting that some of the things that have been said over the past few weeks have been about the time it might take them to read [the report] more than anything in relation to the specific proposals themselves."
DS: It seems that Sky was particularly concerned when a Canvas EPG was being discussed; do you understand those fears?
RH: "I think we recognise that for the platform to be meaningful for audiences then it has to prevent content that is navigable and is easy to discover. From a content provider's perspective, it creates a technical framework that allows them to integrate content very simply. To do that, you need some form of structure from a technical and a design perspective which people can see and understand. This also must have a level of consistency so that when you integrate your content into Canvas it works across a wide range of devices and ISPs. Those things require a common technical infrastructure which is relatively unpretentious. Canvas is based on internet technology which makes it very easy to produce content for that. I think most people get that, but the real underlying thing is the idea that Canvas is somehow going to manipulate things to give certain content precedence.
"I don't think we could be any clearer; Canvas is not being set up to give an inherent advantage to the shareholders. Even if we wanted to, I think it would be very naive for us to do something so obvious. So we have tried to use relatively set industry paradigms to apply to the Canvas EPG. From our perspective, we are going to be very clear about giving content providers creative freedom. For anyone making content for this platform, there is no templating, there is no preconceived logic about how content should appear, there is just full creative freedom and responsibility to the provider. As the BBC, we know how important that is because we create our own content across multiple platforms. We want Doctor Who to look and feel like Doctor Who on BBC One, mobiles and hopefully Canvas as well. We want the freedom to express our brands which works across simultaneous platforms, and i think most content providers get that. In terms of prominence, there are lots of models out there; for example, the order that you put linear channels on DTT, the industry has signed up to a group with every linear channel represented to decide the orderings for channels. So that's how DTT works today, so we will just replicate that for Canvas. Wherever you can, you just reach for existing models and create as much flexibility as you can."
DS: Another interesting aspect of the report was the measures to mitigate the burden of traffic associated with VOD usage over ISP networks. Was it very important to ease the costs for ISPs as people start using VOD a lot more?
RH: "Connected television is about the industries coming together - content providers, ISPs and manufacturers - and everyone comes to that business with their own costs and their own revenue opportunities. There are ways in which you can mitigate some of the costs that are created. This is particularly when you are trying to create a horizontal platform where no one ISP, broadcaster or manufacturers has control, you have to be responsible about that. So we have proposed things like including storage in the devices which enables content to be taken off air. The best example is that on a Monday, 25% of our iPlayer traffic is from last night's Top Gear. So why have a million people playing Top Gear over their ISP on Monday, instead just drop it into the hard drive as soon as it has been broadcast. This will mean that when the consumer presses play on iPlayer in the Canvas box they won't know if it coming from IP or over the hard drive, and they won't care either. If we put it in the box, it takes all of the load from the networks and reduces the cost for them."
DS: So it's all about reducing those multiple streams for bandwidth usage...
RH: "Yeah. Content has a very long tail but it also has a big head as well. We published the figures recently, we think that 40% of the traffic to Canvas boxes could be offset by programmes being intelligently recorded onto the box. It's a big number."
DS: What about the other players on the market - we have BlinkBox, there is ongoing talk of Hulu launching in the UK and Arqiva recently purchased the old Kangaroo tech - so where will Canvas fit into that marketplace?
RH: "I think that all of those things are good for Canvas as a platform, because Canvas isn't going to aggregate content or have a revenue function. There will just be a portfolio of people who want to put their content on the platform, so BBC iPlayer, Demand Five, Channel 4. If all of that is enhanced by Hulu, BlinkBox, whatever, then it just makes Canvas a more exciting platform with more content from more providers. Form a consumer perspective, that jut creates more choice and competition, which normally increases choice at cheaper prices.
"What I think is interesting about Canvas is that it is attributable to Freeview, which is a success because it is a very simple proposition. It's relatively neutral and open in terms of content, anyone who has a DTT channel that is free to air can go on it. For consumers, there is no subscription attached to it and Canvas just takes those values and then shows what is possible if you apply them to the connected space. So you end with a grown up Freeview offering which leads to a massively wider availability. Then its up to consumers to decide whether they are willing to pay for content on the platform, but there is no requirement to do so when they sign up. You just buy the box."
DS: Will the box support HD programming?
RH: "We expect that most Canvas boxes that are sold will support DVB-T2, so they will support Freeview HD. You buy a Canvas box, then you will also buy Freeview HD. HD over IP is an interesting question for the networks, but there are a few ways to do it. Today, you download content and it buffers while it trickles down. I think content providers and ISPs will just have to follow the technology to make more HD content available. However, I think in terms of the full raw power of streaming HD, our networks are a way off that at the moment."
DS: The BBC Trust has set a timeline for its decision on Canvas. If approval is forthcoming, when do you envisage that people can get their hands on a Canvas box?
RH: "Given what we hope the Trust will say, there is a real opportunity for 2010. I also think that 2010 is really important because it's the year of Freeview HD, and we know that other platforms will be offering similar functionality. Freeview has always been about presenting people with choice as a free option and I think next year we will see a lot of activity in the pay TV sector, so free-to-air platforms offering competitive choice to consumers is really important. That is why for us, 2010 is really important."