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YouView: 'Public service catch-up telly should belong to us alone'

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Exclusive British broadcasters' telly-on-demand services should be exclusive to YouView set-top boxes to make the hardware more attractive, said YouView's chief - according to industry sources.

YouView is a venture backed by the BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5, telcos TalkTalk and BT, and TV transmission company Arqiva. The partnership's set-top box receives Freeview and uses a broadband connection to pipe catch-up services BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand5 into televisions.

But the four broadcasters also punt these catch-up services to rivals Sky and Virgin Media, who bundle the services with their broadband packages. This eats into YouView's set-top box sales: why buy a £300 unit when your internet provider is already offering the programmes you want?

This has prompted YouView CEO Richard Halton, speaking at the company's most recent board meeting, to propose that the broadcasters pull back their TV syndication, The Register understands. The move was met with a mixed reaction from YouView board members, and concern and incredulity in the British TV industry.

Although carriage of live TV channels is regulated, nothing obliges broadcasters to syndicate their programmes to rivals. However, Ofcom keeps a beady eye on the issue, for it has significant competition implications.

Last year, the head of the watchdog's competition policy group, the economist Stuart McIntosh, fired a shot across the BBC's bows by warning the corporation over its draft iPlayer syndication plans. And a report [PDF] commissioned by The Ministry of Fun noted that Sky charges broadcasters to include their live transmissions in its products and offers them a discount if it can bundle their video-on-demand services. All of which tempts punters away from picking up a YouView box.

"This isn't an issue for us to comment on," a YouView spokesperson told us. "You should contact the public service broadcasters directly."

So we did.

Our industry sources questioned whether British commercial channels such as ITV could pocket decent revenue from its catch-up service if it goes exclusive to YouView. It's estimated that fewer than 50,000 YouView units have been sold despite generally positive reviews and aggressive consumer deals. TalkTalk throws in a free YouView box for £14.50 a month on top of the broadband subscription fee. Arqiva is said to be cool on the idea.

It was Ofcom's concerns about competition that prompted the BBC to spin out the YouView project, which was originally conceived as "the iPlayer in hardware" called Project Canvas, in 2008.

"Commercially led propositions which seek to compete with Canvas should not be unfairly prevented from accessing BBC content," Ofcom wrote to the BBC Trust in 2009.

One industry source told us the competition issue is very much alive:

There are huge commercial implications in the public service broadcasters collectively owning their own platforms. That's at the core of this problem. Viewers should be able to watch the programmes they've paid for, via the licence fee or indirect taxation, however they choose. The era of 'Auntie knows best' is over. This is about consumer choice.

The landscape has changed significantly since then, and long delays to YouView allowed rivals to, er, catch up on catch-up. Sky+ is a success and Virgin announced it had one million TiVO subscribers this summer. ®

Updated to add

A spokesperson for YouView has since been in touch to say: "YouView would never pursue such an agenda and we have no plans to reconsider our position on this.”

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