Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Get turned on any time

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday November 18th, 2002

Next week's communications bill will mean viewers can watch anything on TV whenever they like. Some see this as heralding porn on demand. Kate Bulkley reports

Next week sees the announcement of the much-anticipated communications bill. It will include a section that is set to help kick-start one of TV's most long-suffering technologies and, at the same time, could spark one of the largest protests the TV business has ever seen.

At the centre of the storm will be the government's plan to allow video-on-demand services (VoD) to be regulated by a self-appointed group of TV executives. This will upset viewer action groups and lobbyists, who say that the lack of strong government controls on VoD is an open invitation for pornographic and highly violent programming, which has traditionally been broadcast after the watershed, to flood into every home.

Andy Birchall, executive chairman of the ON Demand Group, which operates the Front Row pay-per-service movie services for Telewest and NTL in the UK, says it is not the intention of VoD companies to blanket the airwaves with wall-to-wall porn. "Porn and violence is at the very edge of the VoD spectrum in terms of what could be provided. There is a wide variety of subtlety between how the public is now consuming programmes and how they could do it," he says.

Companies in the VoD domain, led by Home Choice, have been championing this style of viewer choice since 1996. The pioneering Kingston Communications interactive TV service in Hull has also offered the service to its 8,000 subscribing homes for more than a year.

However, the cost of setting up and running the services is high and the VoD industry has stalled. Kingston has stopped marketing its VOD service to new customers, while Home Choice is in the midst of raising yet more money to add to the nearly 250m it has spent so far.

Home Choice, Kingston Communications, the UK cable companies and others have been working hard to make sure that the communications bill recognises the fact that VoD is more akin to the internet than it is to traditional broadcast television. That change of perspective, the VoD companies believe, will help their business plans gain much-needed traction.

"The government has said all along that it wouldn't regulate the internet," says Adam Tow, general counsel for Video Networks, which runs the Home Choice service. "VoD operators are halfway between the internet and television and there is a recognition in government of the difference. Regulation will still be there, but what we've provisionally agreed with government is that we'll develop a self-regulatory regime with a code of practice run by an independent chairman."

Fewer than 20,000 homes have VoD in the UK, although Sky Digital and cable viewers have enjoyed near-VoD for several years through staggered start times of movies. This is what Sky Box Office and Front Row currently offer. The unique selling point of true VoD is that it offers a library of programming that can be accessed whenever the viewer wants it, 24 hours a day. So, instead of watching Coronation Street when ITV has scheduled it, the VoD viewer orders it up at any time of day or night.

Also, instead of waiting 15 minutes for a favourite movie to begin, the VoD household can start it at a moment's notice. In America, statistics have shown that VoD households have buy-rates up to four times higher than those with near-VoD.

However, in the UK today VOD services are still subject to watershed restrictions based on the type of programming, so whereas Coronation Street can be viewed on Home Choice at any time of day, an episode of The Sopranos, with its graphic violence and harsh language, cannot be offered to viewers until after 9pm. How programmes are promoted on screen and how they are sponsored also comes under ITC rules, even though VOD systems are a one- to-one technology and not a broadcast service.

At Home Choice's full-scale London advertising launch in September 2000, an army tank was driven around the capital to promote the theme that the television revolution had arrived. But Home Choice peaked last year at 14,000 subscribing households and has been in decline for months. Using high-priced BT phone lines to deliver its VoD content has crippled it financially (it is continuing to negotiate with BT for better rates), but the communications bill will at least give Home Choice and its programming partners a fillip.

Jeremy Yates, deputy managing director of Playboy TV UK, believes that viewers really want VoD, but that the technology needs a few helping hands to give it new impetus. "If there's one product that cries out for VoD functionality, it's adult programming," he says. "It would allow people to rewind, choose what they want to watch at the start time they want. As well as that, there is anonymous ordering. All these things contribute to more customer satisfaction, which means a higher buy rate which is why we're really keen about it."

Yates says that the internet already provides strong adult content that is available at any time with no regulation. In addition, 18-rated videos have been available with triple-X strength for more than a year in the UK, and magazine porn content is more explicit than ever. "There must come a point where it wouldn't be too shocking to see something slightly stronger on TV, provided you have proper safeguards in place," says Yates.

However, the image of VoD as a deliverer of porn is not something that operators such as Kingston Communications want to promote. The main reason Kingston's VOD service launched originally without porn content was to ensure VOD didn't get stigmatised as a "porn-only-service," says one of the executives who was involved in the launch. But it is also true that operators get far higher margins from erotic content on VoD than they do from Hollywood blockbusters for which the studios drive hard bargains. So at the end of this month, Kingston, which is losing money on its interactive TV service, is launching a "portfolio" of Playboy VoD services, but customers will need a personal identification number (PIN) in order to access the programming.

Media Guardian Get turned on any time Next week's communications bill will mean viewers can watch anything on TV whenever they like. Some see this as heralding porn on demand. Kate Bulkley reports Monday November 18, 2002 The Guardian Next week sees the announcement of the much-anticipated communications bill. It will include a section that is set to help kick-start one of TV's most long-suffering technologies and, at the same time, could spark one of the largest protests the TV business has ever seen. At the centre of the storm will be the government's plan to allow video-on-demand services (VoD) to be regulated by a self-appointed group of TV executives. This will upset viewer action groups and lobbyists, who say that the lack of strong government controls on VoD is an open invitation for pornographic and highly violent programming, which has traditionally been broadcast after the watershed, to flood into every home. Andy Birchall, executive chairman of the ON Demand Group, which operates the Front Row pay-per-service movie services for Telewest and NTL in the UK, says it is not the intention of VoD companies to blanket the airwaves with wall-to-wall porn. "Porn and violence is at the very edge of the VoD spectrum in terms of what could be provided. There is a wide variety of subtlety between how the public is now consuming programmes and how they could do it," he says. Companies in the VoD domain, led by Home Choice, have been championing this style of viewer choice since 1996. The pioneering Kingston Communications interactive TV service in Hull has also offered the service to its 8,000 subscribing homes for more than a year. However, the cost of setting up and running the services is high and the VoD industry has stalled. Kingston has stopped marketing its VOD service to new customers, while Home Choice is in the midst of raising yet more money to add to the nearly 250m it has spent so far. Home Choice, Kingston Communications, the UK cable companies and others have been working hard to make sure that the communications bill recognises the fact that VoD is more akin to the internet than it is to traditional broadcast television. That change of perspective, the VoD companies believe, will help their business plans gain much-needed traction. "The government has said all along that it wouldn't regulate the internet," says Adam Tow, general counsel for Video Networks, which runs the Home Choice service. "VoD operators are halfway between the internet and television and there is a recognition in government of the difference. Regulation will still be there, but what we've provisionally agreed with government is that we'll develop a self-regulatory regime with a code of practice run by an independent chairman." Fewer than 20,000 homes have VoD in the UK, although Sky Digital and cable viewers have enjoyed near-VoD for several years through staggered start times of movies. This is what Sky Box Office and Front Row currently offer. The unique selling point of true VoD is that it offers a library of programming that can be accessed whenever the viewer wants it, 24 hours a day. So, instead of watching Coronation Street when ITV has scheduled it, the VoD viewer orders it up at any time of day or night. Also, instead of waiting 15 minutes for a favourite movie to begin, the VoD household can start it at a moment's notice. In America, statistics have shown that VoD households have buy-rates up to four times higher than those with near-VoD. However, in the UK today VOD services are still subject to watershed restrictions based on the type of programming, so whereas Coronation Street can be viewed on Home Choice at any time of day, an episode of The Sopranos, with its graphic violence and harsh language, cannot be offered to viewers until after 9pm. How programmes are promoted on screen and how they are sponsored also comes under ITC rules, even though VOD systems are a one- to-one technology and not a broadcast service. At Home Choice's full-scale London advertising launch in September 2000, an army tank was driven around the capital to promote the theme that the television revolution had arrived. But Home Choice peaked last year at 14,000 subscribing households and has been in decline for months. Using high-priced BT phone lines to deliver its VoD content has crippled it financially (it is continuing to negotiate with BT for better rates), but the communications bill will at least give Home Choice and its programming partners a fillip. Jeremy Yates, deputy managing director of Playboy TV UK, believes that viewers really want VoD, but that the technology needs a few helping hands to give it new impetus. "If there's one product that cries out for VoD functionality, it's adult programming," he says. "It would allow people to rewind, choose what they want to watch at the start time they want. As well as that, there is anonymous ordering. All these things contribute to more customer satisfaction, which means a higher buy rate which is why we're really keen about it." Yates says that the internet already provides strong adult content that is available at any time with no regulation. In addition, 18-rated videos have been available with triple-X strength for more than a year in the UK, and magazine porn content is more explicit than ever. "There must come a point where it wouldn't be too shocking to see something slightly stronger on TV, provided you have proper safeguards in place," says Yates. However, the image of VoD as a deliverer of porn is not something that operators such as Kingston Communications want to promote. The main reason Kingston's VOD service launched originally without porn content was to ensure VOD didn't get stigmatised as a "porn-only-service," says one of the executives who was involved in the launch. But it is also true that operators get far higher margins from erotic content on VoD than they do from Hollywood blockbusters for which the studios drive hard bargains. So at the end of this month, Kingston, which is losing money on its interactive TV service, is launching a "portfolio" of Playboy VoD services, but customers will need a personal identification number (PIN) in order to access the programming. So how would Kingston's service change if the self-regulation regime came into force? Clearly there would be more graphic and adult content available at more times of the day, but the intention of the operators, says Birchall of ON Demand Management, is to "work out of the existing codes from the ITC".

Playboy's Yates adds: "The ITC is light-touch regulation, so the communications bill self-regulation proposal is a natural extension of that. And no one is going to do anything terribly irresponsible because they would lose customers."

Yet the level of safeguards is still set to become the key point for groups such as the Viewers and Listeners Association, which monitors television content from a consumer perspective. Lord Dubs, chairman of the broadcasting standards commission, is worried about VoD's potential to increase sleaze on television.

"This [self-regulation idea] seems a step further towards the breach of the watershed and I'd be concerned that programming that is almost acceptable late at night coming on earlier in the evening without adequate safeguards," he says.

 

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