Media: All about ... The launch of Kangaroo

Will Kangaroo confound its critics and prove a success, Alasdair Reid asks.

Recently, one of the national newspapers was in gloriously mischievous mood when it illustrated its story on the launch of Kangaroo with a picture of Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder mode. Naturally, yes, Blackadder is a classic BBC programme, and, yes, of course, the BBC is a participant in Kangaroo, alongside ITV and Channel 4.

But you couldn't help but feel that the expression on Edmund Blackadder's face - those arched eyebrows, that look of impish scepticism - was somehow familiar. It's the look of a man who's just heard one of Baldrick's cunning plans.

You don't have to look very hard to find reasons why the big newspaper publishers might want to subvert (however subtly) a project like Kangaroo. After all, their digital media strategies are increasingly manoeuvring them into head-on competition with broadcasters in the online marketplace.

But you can't help feeling that, in this case, scepticism might be justified on broader grounds than mere narrow self-interest.

Kangaroo, a video-on-demand platform that will aggregate content from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, is, to use that time-honoured euphemism, a brave initiative.

It is essentially a defensive move, designed to protect their status in the distribution business. The plan is to outwit actual or possible competitors - for instance, YouTube or iTunes or the relaunched Anytime platform from Sky - whose offerings could become the means to access TV programming content from broadcasters across the spectrum and from around the globe.

Thus, we have been invited to think of Kangaroo doing for broadband on-demand television content "what Freeview has been doing for digital television", just as a careering species of antipodean marsupial has been evoked to help us to visualise the great leap forward that is involved.

There are plenty of critics of the whole Kangaroo project, not least internally at the BBC. There's disquiet that the BBC is spending yet more money (and, ultimately, it's public money, too) in attempting to develop an industry-wide commercial infrastructure platform when it has already spent millions developing its proprietary iPlayer. (To date, the total spent on digitising BBC output is estimated at a good deal more than £100 million.)

Meanwhile, some managers, not just at the BBC, but also at ITV and Channel 4, worry that digital rights management issues remain unresolved. And their worst fears are that developments by rival media owners may conspire to make Kangaroo irrelevant within months.

As for the precise identity of our Baldrick, credit for the role must, in this instance, be shared. We give you, in no particular order, John Smith, the chief executive of the BBC's commercial television company, BBC Worldwide; Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV; and Andy Duncan, the chief executive of Channel 4.

1. When Kangaroo launches next year (it's unlikely Kangaroo will be its chosen brand name), it will offer more than 10,000 hours of archive programming from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 on a video-on-demand basis over the web. The intention is to run this as a commercial enterprise, but the participants have yet to agree on details. Options include subscriptions, pay-per-view and advertising. Programming can be made available on the site once its "public service window" has expired. In the case of one-off programmes, this is after seven days. Kangaroo's launch chief executive will be Lesley MacKenzie, a former director of channels and operations at BSkyB.

2. Initially, Kangaroo will not affect the status of the existing media player services offered by the three participants. But it will effectively act as a portal to those offerings, and further integration will be inevitable. Kangaroo will also invite third-party broadcasters to channel their content via the site.

3. As such, that ambition will bring it into competition with Sky Anytime. Anytime, which was relaunched recently, not only has a head start, but also has access to a greater range of delivery techniques. It can offer computer downloads and can push content through satellite or the web on to Sky+ PVRs. The relaunch will see the range of content extended to include programming from the National Geographic Channel, The History Channel and The Biography Channel. The service will also be available "remotely", enabling users to access content via multiple PCs. Content includes Sky Sports clips and more than 500 films, as well as general entertainment.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

THE BIG THREE UK BROADCASTERS

- The launch of a content aggregator service automatically (and irreversibly) undermines the individual brand positionings of the channels involved. And this sort of initiative is a stark reminder of the huge question now hanging over the heads of all broadcasters: Just what exactly are TV stations for these days?

- Viewers will always have an appetite for good content - and there will always be writers, directors and production companies prepared to fulfil that demand. As for the people who occupy the middle ground, it's increasingly irrelevant whether they call themselves Kangaroo or ITV.- For the BBC, there's the added threat of embarrassing political consequences. Just what is the BBC doing investing in a commercial distribution platform? If it underperforms, heads will roll.

ADVERTISERS

- Advertisers will relish the prospect of advertising in BBC programmes, seven days after their first transmission. The BBC denies that this is an immediate prospect, but digital technologies are continuing to erode the BBC's status as a non-ad-funded public service broadcaster.

- Pedro Avery, the managing director at BLM Media, believes that when programming first runs on Kangaroo, it will be available on a subscription basis with advertisers getting access much later. But this, he points out, still amounts to a decent prospect. "Advertisers need to chase programme brands, whether ER is on E4 or Kangaroo doesn't matter. This is a bonus for buyers," he says.