After Hours

Cheat sheet: Project Canvas

Paint me a picture…

Canvas eh? Are we talking painting or boxing here?
Neither - it's a broadcast industry initiative around TV over broadband. It was announced in December 2008 and is expected to go live in 2010.

What does that mean then?
Well the broadcasters BBC and ITV along with telco BT have teamed up to create a platform for bringing on-demand content to the UK's televisions through new broadband-enabled receivers.

Sort of like a Freeview 2.0 then?
Yeah, you could say that. Freeview brought digital TV to people who didn't want to go down the route of subscription TV - by signing up with Sky and Virgin Media for example - but wanted to move on from analogue TV, set to be phased out by 2012. They simply bought a Freeview box, plugged it in and were ready to go.

In much the same way, Canvas would bring on-demand TV to people not wanting to shell out for on-demand subscription packages such as Sky+.

What's so interesting about it then?
Well the success of the BBC's online on-demand TV service, iPlayer shows that there is a real appetite for on-demand content provided as part of the TV licence fee. Canvas is the next logical progression for such content: bringing it straight to the television set rather than the computer.

In an interview with silicon.com, the BBC's head of Future Media and Technology, Erik Huggers, said Canvas is vital in future-proofing free-to-air TV in the UK.

The broadcaster clearly has lofty ambitions for the project: when it was announced, a BT spokesman told silicon.com the hope is the platform "will grow and become a - if not the - de facto standard" for on-demand web TV services.

While it's seen as a vital step in the evolution of on-demand TV by the organisations involved, other companies - such as device makers, ISPs and broadcasters - have also been invited to participate in the project meaning it could one day become the way the majority of people watch TV in the UK.

So what does this mean for things like iPlayer?
Well, iPlayer would be available through the Canvas platform, meaning iPlayer content can be viewed via people's TV sets rather than just their computers.

Likewise, the ITV equivalent of iPlayer, known as ITV Player, will also be available on Canvas with other services likely to follow.

But can't you get iPlayer on TV already?
It's already available on the Virgin Media platform but is part of its subscription service. Canvas wouldn't require any such ongoing payment, just a one-off purchase of a Canvas-enabled TV receiver.

And although a minority of people are likely to have connected their computers to their TVs to get iPlayer in their living room, most will either be unaware that this can be done or unwilling to work out how to do it. Again, it's an issue Canvas could help solve.

So what else will Canvas do?
Well the BBC's Huggers has said that he thinks Canvas could be the start of something bigger as the platform could potentially spark a new software-industry based on its potential to distribute third party applications to the UK's living rooms along with TV content.

So as well as on-demand content, viewers could potentially access Facebook on their television, tweet about what they're watching or keep an eye on the stock market while they watch The Apprentice.

This all sounds pretty nifty but I bet the regulators are taking a close look…
And you'd be right. The BBC's independent regulator, the BBC Trust, is currently taking a look at the project to see if it meets all the criteria that a licence-fee-funded project needs to.

As part of the BBC Trust's consultation process, UK comms regulator Ofcom has said Canvas needs to pay attention to DRM, quality standards and fairness towards its rivals while developing the platform.

Ofcom also suggested that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) may have a part to play in Canvas' future - something unlikely to please the BBC and ITV after the demise of Project Kangaroo.

Kangaroo, an online on-demand TV service and joint venture between the BBC's commercial arm BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, was referred by the OFT to the Competition Commission, and the project was ultimately blocked in February.

So it might not be plain sailing?
Well, there are always issues around such collaborations that will need to be scrutinised but there appears to be optimism that Canvas won't suffer the same fate as Kangaroo.

A spokeswoman for ITV said the new service should pose no competition worries: "We don't envisage competition implications. It is not a new content service; it is just a platform for content services through a single technical spec. It is an open environment," she told silicon.com when the project was first unveiled.

Ofcom also appears to be positive about the project, saying it is "a timely application to develop a joint venture partnership to help enable delivery of internet protocol television".

What's the situation right now then?
The latest news is that the BBC Trust has asked the BBC to provide more information around the governance and technical arrangements for the project. Although this has delayed the consultation process, if all goes well, Canvas should still go live in 2010.

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