The arrival of YouView on Sony’s latest TVs allows the Japanese giant to meet UK audiences’ growing desire to watch catch-up content on their big screen and is a major milestone for the connected TV platform which finally has a serious and credible retail partner.
Save for a few months in the summer of 2012, YouView has largely been experienced on set top boxes issued by two of its funding partners – BT and TalkTalk – to their pay-TV customers.
While standalone retail boxes have always existed, these required customers to hand over as much as £300 and many understandably opted to get a subsided box in return for a low priced, 12 month TV subscription at the end of which they could keep the box with no further payment.
An early advertising campaign aimed at retail sales soon got dropped and marketing has since been dominated by the partner ISPs who’ve delighted shareholders by boosting their TV customer bases.
But the service’s arrival on Sony TV’s means that YouView now has a deep-pocketed partner which is interested in selling the core EPG and catch-up service rather than paid-for add-ons and broadband contracts.
Over the next few weeks the manufacturer will start highlighting the availability of YouView through in-store publicity and demos, building customer awareness of the brand and extolling the virtues of its embedded catch-up players which are increasingly seen as a ‘must-have’ by UK shoppers.
Sony’s deep relationships with major retailers means YouView will be impossible to miss as shoppers explore ways to make their TVs a little smarter and will be seen as a viable alternative to the new Freeview Play connected TV service.
For YouView the timing of this renewed focus on its retail proposition couldn’t be better.
Unsurprisingly YouView CEO Richard Halton looked pretty pleased as he and Sony counterpart John Anderson briefed a small gathering of journos on Wednesday morning.
There have been a number of such briefings over the past couple of years as new capabilities, content providers and accessibility features have been added.
At each one Halton’s been asked whether his service was in fact a flop which had simply failed to capture the public’s and, perhaps more importantly, manufacturers’ imaginations.
His responses were always positive, confident and invited the questioner to have a little more patience. More than once I’ve wondered whether Halton really knew something the rest of us didn’t or was simply a guy you’d be foolish to play at poker.
But it turns out his confidence was more than a bluff.
Halton and his team have been working with Sony for the past two years to turn early exploratory talks into a finalised product which was downloaded by hundreds of eager TV owners within minutes of release in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Two years is also the amount of time since Halton first hosted Netflix supremo Reed Hastings and showed him what YouView could do. Hastings is said to have been seriously impressed at a product which is far more advanced than most of the cable boxes US viewers pay a fortune to rent.
I still have no idea whether it’s safe to play poker against Halton but given it took around a year to get Netflix onto YouView and two years to get YouView onto Sony it’s clearly sensible to assume he’s not bullshitting when he says work to add more big name content partners to the platform is already underway.
On top of the nameless providers (such deals are shrouded in confidentiality clauses) already in the pipeline, Halton expressed optimism that YouView’s presence on Sony could also help unlock other content providers.
Of the 2million YouView boxes connected to a broadband service – more units have been sold but the firm only counts those which are online – half access video on demand content at least once a week.
If Sony’s customer base were to replicate that usage pattern it’s likely more brands would want a share of their viewing time and money and warm to YouView’s approaches.
At launch YouView on Sony offers just the core catch-up players – iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5 – but both firms say it’s possible that other services such as UKTV and Quest could be added at a later stage.
Sony has its own relationship with Netflix which is currently a standalone app on its TVs, but I’m told it’s possible the service’s library of shows and films could become searchable via YouView’s integrated search to provide a second, seamless access point.
Quizzed about potential future developments, Halton and Anderson were clear that this is a long-term partnership with potential for features such as recording from the YouView EPG and support for BT and TalkTalk’s streamed channels to be added at a later date.
The tie-up also includes a commitment that Sony’s YouView TVs will be supported throughout their lifetime, news to be welcomed by those who previously invested a small fortune in a Smart TV only to find it stopped receiving updates when the manufacturer decided it wanted to sell a newer model.
So wins all round – Sony gets the full collection of major catch-up players, customers get confidence that their purchases will last and YouView ends the year as the EPG of choice for one of the world’s biggest entertainment brands.
Despite the media’s tendency to dismiss it as an embarrassing failure, YouView is shaping up to be genuine UK tech success story and a vindication of Halton’s seemingly never waning confidence.