By Matthew Walters – @matthew_walters – email@example.com
Sunday morning began a few weekends ago like any other, with newspapers sprawled over the dining table and a pot of freshly brewed coffee to hand. On the living room radio, John Lennon – his mock playful vocals ranging over the backing of a lilting acoustic guitar – lamented that “the more I see, the less I know for sure”. I remembered this line this week when thinking of a newly introduced feature on one of our smallest, yet one of our most interesting, free-to-air platforms that has recently been withdrawn. Closer inspection revealed that Recordings to Go, as it was called – launched in late March by EE TV as a way for its customers to transfer PVR recordings to a mobile or tablet device, to ultimately be watched outside of the home and without the need for a broadband connection – was quietly removed last month, following (in the words of EE) “discussions with content rightsholders”. This was made all the more notable by the fact that, just weeks earlier, Sky Q – the new “pay premium” service from Sky – launched with a similar (though crucially not identical) feature that remains in tact and in operation at the time of writing. Though this would appear to be the tale of two platforms and a type of functionality that has coined the most mechanical of industry jargon (“sideloading”), and could generously be described in these early days as little known and little used (though growing in popularity), this episode in fact cuts much deeper and wider – and points to further potential pinch points in relations between broadcasters, rightsholders and platforms in the months and years ahead.
The whole concept of platforms, and – indeed – broadcasters, offering television programming outside the home (be it live or on demand) isn’t exactly a new one, yet thus far the different propositions that have emerged have differed both in their execution and their delivery. It could be argued that we’ve seen “out of home” access to television content move through two (sometimes overlapping) phases, with the arrival this year of a third – “sideloading” – on UK shores, having been first most prominently introduced by a number of US pay television platforms in recent years. Let’s briefly survey the two phases we’ve seen thus far before turning our attention to the arrival of sideloading concepts – first amongst some of the US pay television platforms, and now, newly, among their UK cousins.
Phase one: Free (and sometimes premium) download-to-device features on broadcaster catch-up and platform TV Everywhere services
From their initial largely on-demand and solely streaming-focused beginnings, broadcaster catch-up players and platform TV Everywhere services soon evolved to embrace download-to-device features. Amongst the UK platforms, as early as 2006 Sky introduced this by means of its Sky By Broadband/Sky Anytime service – with the number of channels a user could access depending on their subscription. Acting as an early forerunner to the Sky Go service (it was rebadged and has been supercharged since July 2011), in 2013 a premium tier – allowing for this “download to device” feature to continue – was added. Sky Go Extra continues to offer to Sky customers time-limited downloads to devices of certain on-demand programming for an additional £5 per month.
Much of the innovation in this area, among the UK platforms at least (until very recently), has been transactional. Take BT TV, fresh from being the first platform to allow its customers to buy films through its YouView boxes (back in February 2014), offering its customers just ten months later the chance to stream (and download) their purchases on up to four other mobile or tablet devices (although only one at a time). Sky and its Sky Store has since April 2015 offered a similar level of multi-device access.
In the world of broadcast, BBC (see right) and Channel 4’s catch up players evolved to offer, as well as streamed on-demand and live programming, respective temporary download features. Rolled out in both cases on Android and iOS mobile and tablet devices by late 2013, this enabled users to download certain programmes to their devices (where rights had been cleared) for thirty days, after which they would be automatically deleted. Any time within this thirty-day period, a user would have seven days to complete their viewing after starting playback of a downloaded file. In recent years, both the BBC and Channel 4 have – in seeking to build more direct, personalised relationships with viewers – leveraged this feature to encourage user registration.
And as for television, so too for subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services. Last September, Amazon introduced to its Instant Video service the ability for subscribers to download film or television titles to mobiles and tablet devices, with content availability and attached restrictions varying by title. By contrast, Netflix very publicly dismissed the utility of – and demand for – such a feature last year, with its Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt commenting that he was “not sure…it’s worth providing that level of complexity”. A potential volte face could be on the cards with rumours of a temporary download feature to be introduced before the year is out.
Phase two: Early PVR to device transfer (sideloading “lite”)
The most well-known of these, launched in the Autumn of 2011 by DirecTV, was the Nomad – rebranded as the GenieGo in June 2013. When opening up the GenieGo app on their mobile or tablet device (and when connected to the home broadband network), a DirecTV customer can see the full list of recordings sitting on their PVR, and then choose up to 20 hours of programming to transfer (“sideload”) to the separate Nomad/GenieGo device. DirecTV customers on the move are able to stream the “sideloaded” programming from their GenieGo device to mobiles and tablets via the GenieGo app, with downloads expiring after 30 days. Though this is a device still in use in DirecTV homes, the platform has stopped offering it to customers over the phone and on its website.
A similar device was launched by Dish Network at the beginning of this year – the HopperGo (pictured right). For a standalone $99, it provides 100 hours of storage for sideloaded PVR recordings, and has the capability to stream (via the Dish Anywhere app) to five different mobile or tablet devices at once.
Phase three: Advanced PVR to device transfer (sideloading max)
Once again, a Stateside glance at our American counterparts is instructive at this point. Several of the US pay platforms have introduced in recent years the ability for customers to transfer PVR recordings or downloads to mobile or tablet devices across the home broadband network, with the exact nature of this feature varying from platform to platform, and recording to recording. Comcast, using its Xfinity 1 platform, has offered the ability to do this for a limited number of programmes for a number of years – the same too for Dish Network, via its Hopper 2 and 3 set-top boxes, and Verizon through its Fios platform. Though this has been the general direction of travel, it has not all been one way: AT&T, for example, withdrew just last Autumn a sideloading feature for its U-verse TV Everywhere customers, citing the difficulty of obtaining the appropriate permissions from rightsholders.
Which brings us to the spring, when in late February and late March respectively Sky Q and EE TV’s out-of-home features were made available for customers to use on registered tablets (in both cases) and mobiles (EE TV only). From launch, Sky Q customers can – having initially made PVR recordings or catch up/on demand downloads via the set-top box – connect their tablet device to the same broadband network and view within the Sky Q companion app (pictured left) view a full list of these. In many cases (BBC programming being a major exception to the rule), these recordings and downloads can be streamed from the set-top box via the Sky Q app, providing the user’s tablet device is sharing the same broadband connection. In addition, and again via the app, the user can choose from a “Download to Device” menu which presents a selection – where the appropriate rights have been agreed – of these PVR recordings and downloads that can both be transferred to the local memory of a user’s tablet and watched offline, potentially and probably out of home. Though in the early months of this year in its marketing Sky’s kaleidoscopic campaign boasted of being able to “take your recordings with you”, a noticeable proportion of these – varying in size, depending on your viewing and channel tastes – remain rooted to the set-top box and to the in-home network, where the appropriate out of home rights between the various players haven’t been agreed. Not only that, those recordings or downloads that can taken out of home are time-restricted: downloads averaging 30 days on a device before deletion, 48 hours to complete playback once started, and a maximum of two downloads per item (i.e. an individual episode of a wider series).
EE TV’s Recordings to Go feature worked in a slightly different manner to achieve ultimately a very similar outcome to Sky Q. From the platform’s mobile or tablet app (pictured right), an EE TV customer could nominate – ahead of broadcast – an individual programme or series that they wished to either record on their PVR or make a “Recording to Go”. In the first scenario, once recorded, a programme would stay on a user’s PVR for playback at a later date, with little to no restrictions. In the second, the nominated recording would initially be made on a user’s PVR, after which the set-top box would send registered tablet or mobile devices a notification to say that the recording could be transferred to the device within a 48-hour window (after which the entitlement would expire). Once transferred to a mobile or tablet device for offline viewing, the initial PVR recording would be erased, leaving only the version stored locally on the user’s chosen device. In the feature’s short life span, it was unclear of the length of time a Recording to Go would stay on a mobile or tablet device before any kind of automatic deletion. Unlike on Sky Q, no channel – nor any genre of broadcast (films and live sport) – seemed out of scope. The Recordings to Go feature disappeared from view in early June.
In an industry as confused and confusing as ours, with every advance in features and functionality – as broadcasters and platforms seek to evolve, or at the very least marginally improve, the ways viewers can consume television content – come often difficult, occasionally unforeseen and at times even unpredictable commercial tensions, sometimes of such a strength so as to spill into the industry’s – if not the general public’s – view.
In the case of EE TV, the Recordings to Go feature – and its subsequent, perhaps whimpered, withdrawal – brought to the surface already apparently entrenched, and entrenching, disagreements between broadcasters and rightsholders on the one side and the EE TV platform on the other. These have centred over its approach to broadcast, PVR and catch-up content (and the grey areas in between) since it arrived in the UK market in late 2014. From launch, the platform’s Replay feature has allowed a customer to nominate six of their favourite channels from a selection of fourteen (comprising the PSBs and the majority of their portfolio channels) to be recorded on the EE TV set-top box on an ongoing twenty-four-hour basis, retaining these recordings for playback in a VOD-style (but PVR-driven) interface for the following twenty-four hours. Though it remains a feature initiated through the set-top box, access to – and playback of – these recordings can be gained in-home on registered mobile and tablet devices through the EE TV app, streamed from the set-top box. Considerations of all stripes – from being able to fast-forward through all recorded advertisements, through sometimes representing programming in the Replay menu using third-party metadata/imagery, to providing a credible (if platform-led) alternative to the major broadcaster catch-up players – have, it has been reported elsewhere, caused some of the featured broadcasters to voice their discontent. The introduction of Recordings to Go, turning the combined power of the EE TV set-top box and accompanying app to embrace a new out-of-home potential, seemed in many ways to cross the Rubicon. The feature lasted ten weeks – one week longer, as it happens, than The New Day, Trinity Mirror’s recent newspaper launch and closure. It seems unclear, though looks increasingly unlikely, that it will return.
Though the fine details of what ultimately did for the Recordings to Go feature have remained, and will almost certainly stay, behind closed doors, there are a few observations we and the wider industry can make from this. From the tone of EE’s public statements to customers (a decision taken after “discussions with content rightsholders”), together with the nature of the withdrawal, it would appear that Recordings to Go as a functionality challenged (seemingly to an uncomfortable degree) the scope and definition of existing rights agreements – rights stretched and stretching in keeping pace with new consumer behaviours, and the evolution of older ones. Ever increasing convergence – as here – has brought with it ever more difficult questions of what it is to “timeshift”, and has made even foggier any distinction between what can be considered “video on demand” and recorded/PVR’d programming. Indeed, we’re consequently beginning to see the creation of new classes of rights – ones relating to sideloading and temporary download – which, it would appear, vary very much from broadcaster or rightsholder to the next. Such is the muddled backdrop against which Recordings to Go rose and fell.
Yes, some limited commonalities are beginning to emerge – in terms of the number of devices that can use such a feature concurrently, the maximum number of downloads per item, the length of time a download remains on a device before deletion, and the exact playback period – but, even so, the industry appears to be novel and uncertain territory. It only seems natural that more platforms will seek to roll out similar features, as the importance of offering multi-screening and multi-device functionality grows. The hope is that, in doing so, tensions between rights gatekeepers and their licensees can be eased, rather than becoming more entrenched. A new equilibrium, however difficult, needs to be found; the risk of such issues being obstacles to progress on all sides are just too great otherwise. Indeed, perhaps this is all a foreshadowing of the comparable, yet subtly different, discussions that will inevitably take place in the coming years over the platforms’ march towards network PVR– where questions of what is “timeshifting”, VOD and PVR extend beyond mere devices and out into the great unknown of the cloud.
I learnt only a few days ago that the John Lennon song with which we began is a little-celebrated track called Borrowed Time – an irony, given the preceding paragraphs, that’s all too cruel. The hope, speaking not only as a commentator but as an expectant and demanding consumer, is that what we’ve witnessed in recent weeks in relation to new platform functionalities are mere teething pains. Something tells me that what happens next in this respect will all prove a little more complicated than that.