As smart TVs become more ubiquitous, how can the IPTV service distinguish itself? Alasdair Reid asks its chief executive.
The third-floor meeting room at YouView's offices, overlooking the Thames just downstream from London Bridge, offers some wonderful trompe-l'oeil effects. Through the tall windows, across the river, you can't help noting The Shard, which just happens to be the tallest building in Europe.
Inside the meeting room, there's a rather more domestic conceit - the innermost wall is wallpapered with a design that tries, rather unconvincingly, to convey the impression that it's lined with books. And you can see what they're trying to achieve here, in this stab at a virtual sitting room, because in front of the "books" there's a TV set - and, once you're seated comfortably, YouView's chief executive, Richard Halton, will pick up the remote and begin demonstrating how his new service works.
Until recently, this would have been the crowning trompe-l'oeil effect of them all. Thanks to a series of technical delays and regulatory squabbles, YouView's launch, originally pencilled in for 2010, kept being put back - and there were those who suspected it had missed the bus altogether.
After all, YouView's proposition has always been, arguably, relatively modest - it's a free-to-view on-demand and catch-up service (and it obviously delivers linear TV too) delivered down standard telephone lines to a PVR box.
Sceptics, though, have finally been confounded. And if you judge a thing's substance by whether it has been touched by The X Factor, then YouView is now, officially, real. Its blockbuster TV ad broke in ITV's show last Saturday, kicking off a £10 million campaign that will also embrace outdoor, press and digital. There will be two main bursts of activity - one now and the other closer to Christmas.
Conceived by Adam & Eve/DDB, the spot leans heavily on post-production effects to show some of Britain's best-loved shows projected on to whole cityscapes - and Halton is very pleased with the outcome. "It's intended to feel epic, to have real status," he says. "In my view, the product deserves it."
So we've had the demonstration. (And we can confirm that it works. It has an EPG and a system architecture only slightly different to the one you'll be familiar with if you have Sky or Virgin, and it probably won't scare Freeview users.) We've seen the ad. Now we're keen to find out a little more about targets and marketing strategy.
Sadly, though, Halton has to confess that the details, as regards the post-Christmas period, are as yet a little hazy. The core target market, he can confirm, is current Freeview households (there are ten million of them). YouView boxes have been retailing since July, with a current best price of £260 - but summer was regarded as a "soft" launch and there are no sales figures yet.
Nor, actually, is he prepared to discuss sales targets. And you can sympathise with his difficulties in this. YouView has seven shareholders: four are broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5), one is an infrastructure company (Arqiva) and two (BT and TalkTalk) are, inter alia, internet service providers.
BT and TalkTalk are marketing YouView separately as part of broader packages - and Halton points out that BT plans to phase out its BT Vision boxes in favour of YouView. So both companies may end up making most of the running on the marketing side. It's even conceivable that management control will, in the not-so-distant future, pass to either or both.
But that is another topic for another day. Now, Halton is focused on selling the sizzle. He's fresh-faced and open, enthusiastic without being overbearing. There's clearly no such thing as an archetypal BBC man - but you can't help feeling (though this is probably terribly unfair) that he's far too nice to have made it through the ranks of a commercial broadcaster - even the likes of a Channel 4.
After university, he joined Andersen Consulting, working in its retail division, then joined the BBC in July 1999. At the Beeb (initially under the incoming director-general, Greg Dyke), he rubbed shoulders with the best of the noughties' movers and shakers (Mark Thompson, Roly Keating, Stuart Murphy, Lorraine Heggessey) as he took on a range of general management and strategic roles.
Latterly, he was the corporation's IPTV programme director (clearly, a non-technical background was no hindrance: his degree is in English and European literature); and YouView, which was originally a BBC research and development project, is very much his baby. Initially the project director, he was appointed the chief executive in July 2010 when it was spun off as a stand-alone company.
YouView's unique selling proposition (for non-Virgin homes, at any rate) is that it enables you to watch online catch-up services on your sitting room flatscreen. Does Halton not worry that, with smart TVs such as Samsung's currently building a fair head of marketing steam, YouView will soon appear a relic from an earlier age? Not a bit of it, he responds.
Yes, he says, internet-enabled TVs may be technologically interesting - but do they offer greater access to quality content? The answer, he states, has to be no. And, in that context, he's greatly heartened by the feedback he has been reading on the forum pages hosted by the YouView website.
"It's so simple," he concludes. "YouView is about great content and it's also about an outstanding TV experience."
Lives: Chiswick, London
Family: Married, with three small people aged seven, four and one
Interests outside work: Family, running, theatre, eating well
Last book read: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Desert-island luxury: Needs a TV, internet connection and aerial ...
Favourite holiday destination: St Ives, Cornwall, May half-term
Motto: You'll never walk alone (for all sorts of reasons ...)
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