Friday, 31 July 2009
Microsoft's MSN Video: Now everyone's playing catch-up
The launch of the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up television service in late 2007 has changed the way we view video on the internet. Web users who were used to watching short clips on sites such as YouTube could finally enjoy full-length episodes of their favourite television shows up to seven days after they were first broadcast. It put viewers in charge of their TV schedule, and pushed the whole idea of “on-demand” broadcasting into the public consciousness.
Fast forward two years and new lines are being drawn in the sand for a fresh battle in web TV. Since the demise of Project Kangaroo – which was designed to be a one-stop shop for catch-up television services, but fell foul of the Competition Commission – major broadcasters, including the BBC and ITV, have been exploring new ways of delivering branded content through one platform.
In the United States, Hulu offers a similar kind of “television portal”, aggregating content from several broadcasters and allowing people to watch their favourite shows online, on demand. Hulu is in advanced talks to launch its service this side of the Atlantic.
So it’s no surprise that traditional technology companies are looking at new ways to get involved with video on-demand.
Microsoft, better known for its computer operating systems and Xbox 360 video games consoles, is launching a new online TV player, which will allow web users to watch full-length episodes of old television shows on their computer, for free. Among shows you can expect to see are: Shameless, The Young Ones, Peep Show, League of Gentleman, Hustle, Harry Enfield’s TV Show, How to Look Good Naked, and Derren Brown Mind Control.
The service, called MSN Video, is being pioneered by Ashley Highfield, vice-president of consumer and online services at Microsoft – and the former BBC executive who helped to launch the iPlayer.
Highfield says that around 300 hours of programming will be available when the site goes live within the next week, with shows drawn from the BBC’s archives and the back catalogue of a major independent producer, All3Media. The site will be in beta, or “testing”, for around six months, before gearing up for a full-scale launch. At that point, Highfield hopes to have other broadcasters on board, including ITV and Channel 4.
“We want to be a one-stop shop for the best British content – the ultimate aggregator,” he explains.
The deal Microsoft has struck with the BBC does not clash with anything the iPlayer offers – for instance, you could watch the first two series of Hustle on MSN Video, but only view the most recent episodes on iPlayer. The shows are free because they contain advertisements, before and after each episode, and in the middle. Microsoft is confident consumers will not find this annoying because they realise there is a “value exchange” – in other words, if you know you are getting something free, you will tolerate ads.
But why do people need a “one-stop” shop for TV content online, when individual broadcasters already offer their own on-demand platforms, such as 4oD and iPlayer?
Highfield argues that there is room for both “aggregators”, like Microsoft, who draw together content from multiple sources, and the broadcasters themselves. “You will always get some people who want to visit the host websites because they love the 360 degree experience and to be fully immersed in a show’s environment,” he says. “However, there will be others who want to get everything in one place.”
Highfield wants to put some “clear blue water” between MSN Video and “all other web TV offerings out there”. That could be easier said than done, though. He acknowledges that seeming “cool” can make or break new web products. Hulu, which has had success in the US with its quirky advertising, clever branding, and huge library of television shows, could provide stiff competition when it launches in the UK.
Microsoft, though, is confident that its vast reach, and presence on a variety of platforms, including email, instant-messaging, web browsing and search, will make the new video site a success. The company is also striving to make the site as easy to use as possible.
“We are really proud of the user interface,” says Rob Crossen, business manager for MSN Video. “It’s really simple, which makes it a more televisual experience.”
Creating a “televisual experience” will be important for Microsoft. Highfield says he is already thinking about how the player could be rolled out across Microsoft’s Xbox 360 games console, its Windows Mobile range of phones, and even piped directly to your TV via internet-enabled televisions.
In time, and with enough broadcasters on board, the portal could become a hub for web TV.
Emma Barnett, Technology and Digital Media Correspondent