Media: All about ... Project Canvas

Is the project more than a platform for BBC content?

There are those who will tell you knowingly, not a shadow of a doubt about it, that Project Canvas is so-called to make you think of the big picture where the future of television is concerned. And the analogy here is surely the monstrous sort of canvas that Rolf Harris used to attack with a huge decorator's paint brush in his television shows in the 70s.

"Can you see what it is yet?" Well, we know that Canvas purports to be a project designed to deliver internet protocol television services on a non-subscription basis to a mainstream UK audience - but the answer in this case still has to be a resounding "no".

Meanwhile, there are those who're more inclined to pursue an alternative metaphor. Canvas is surely a circusy sort of allusion to a "big top" type of structure - an erection voluminous enough to accommodate an extravaganza of all the talents, from clowns and lion-tamers to plate-spinners.

And fans of this analogy will have been heartened by last week's news that the big parade will be joined by a new member - Five has announced, with a great fanfare, that it has joined the Project Canvas joint-venture consortium alongside the BBC, ITV and BT.

Which would be hugely exciting if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn't. Not yet, at any rate. There isn't a consortium in place yet - and it's by no means clear that there will be any formal structure (never mind an operating company) in the immediate future, despite a widely publicised notion that there will be services up and running during 2010. In June, the BBC Trust, which currently has jurisdiction over Canvas, delayed a decision on whether to approve its launch pending more information from its backers.

But then the closer you get to Canvas, the more slippery the whole business seems to become.

For a start, it's very much a BBC inspired and funded project, with BBC interests, led by the director-general, Mark Thompson.

This issue, though, is somewhat disguised not just by the supposed collaborative nature of the venture but also by the high-minded "future of television" language in which the whole business is couched.

For instance, there's the whole business about whether this really is, as the BBC claims, an attempt to develop "a standards-based open environment for internet-connected digital television devices".

Open? Critics argue that it's no such thing - and this may, in the end, be its downfall. It is, they insist, essentially "free cable" to complement Freeview and Freesat and it boils down to a BBC project to enable viewers to watch, on their living-room TVs, a couple of products developed initially with the web (and thus personal computer access) in mind.

These are, of course, the iPlayer and the Project Kangaroo service developed by the BBC. Kangaroo technology was recently sold to the broadcast infrastructure operator Arqiva for a refreshingly cheap £8 million. Canvas could turn the Kangaroo concept into a mainstream proposition of vast commercial potential.

That, you could argue, is the cynical view. Other interested parties, such as the Digital Television Group trade body, say that there have been increasingly encouraging signs emerging over the past six weeks or so - and that there's every prospect that Canvas could become a conduit for a genuinely wide spectrum of internet-based, on-demand TV services. ITV has also been heavily involved in developing early plans for Canvas.

But they too would be worried if, as is rumoured, the BBC has already secretly joined forces with a major consumer electronics manufacturer to produce a prototype set-top box. The electronics industry has suspected for months that the BBC has no intention of collaborating genuinely with a wide spectrum of interested parties.

Ofcom has already warned that it may seek to refer Canvas to the competition authorities; while the BBC Trust has also sought reassurances that the project is proceeding in an ordered and responsible fashion. After all, public money is at stake - not least in the salaries of the BBC team (headed by Erik Huggers, the corporation's director of future media and technology, plus the project director Richard Halton) that has done all the work so far.

But the real elephant in the ring is BSkyB. If Sky decides not to join and instead cries foul, then Project Canvas might end up looking like the big top in At The Circus once the Marx brothers had finished with it.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

VIEWERS

- The plan is to make set-top boxes available during 2010. If you have a phone-line broadband internet connection of sufficient capacity, you just plug it in and away you go. You can watch programmes via the BBC iPlayer on your living-room TV. Draft business plans published earlier this year make provision for a marketing budget of around £5 million a year for five years, covered by contributions from participants in a joint-venture consortium set up to manage the platform.

- Initial market research has indicated that there's an encouraging level of underlying interest. Some observers question, however, whether there's much call for a new digital TV distribution platform - especially as both BT and Sky are already using internet-based technologies to deliver on-demand services to living-room TVs.

- But if the box is cheap (and if the chipset begins to be integrated into new TV sets as a matter of course, as is the case with Freeview), then plenty of people may give it a whirl.

ADVERTISERS

- This, agencies say, is the biggest worry of all. As this is essentially a BBC project, advertising isn't automatically top of mind - and there's not enough expertise being brought to bear when it comes to ensuring that the technical specification of the set-top box has functionality to support more sophisticated types of targeted advertising. If that turns out to be the case, then this could add up to a scandalous missed opportunity.

- That said, Canvas will provide, in theory at least, the possibility for ITV to offer advertisers targeted TV advertising along the lines that Sky is developing. Something that could be welcomed by both media owners and advertisers.

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