How Project Canvas will take Freeview and Freesat to the next level

The Canvas EPG

The Canvas EPG won't be like traditional programme guides, especially when you're connecting not just to iPlayer or 4oD, but to services like NHS Direct or DirectGov, which will mix video with information in other formats. Instead, each channel will design its own interface, but Canvas will set standards to make sure they're easy to navigate with a remote control, and provide standard interfaces for features like text entry into online forms.

Canvas channels will probably have to pay a fee to join the guide, like the £30,000 a year to be in Freesat, which will help to pay for continued development. In the big top It's almost certain that ITV, Channel 4 and Five will add their own online on-demand services. With both 4oD and Demand Five hosting a mix of free and paid-for programmes, it's unlikely that Canvas will be all-free like Freeview or Freesat.

More services on Canvas

The BBC has suggested Canvas as a natural way for people to access state services like the NHS, but there's really no limit to what it could be used for – YouTube or Flickr seem like safe bets. The BBC has also proposed giving other European broadcasters access to the Canvas standards so they can encourage the development of on demand TV.

But the idea of Britain setting standards for other countries isn't universally popular, says David Wood of the European Broadcasting Union, which unites public service broadcasters from Dublin to Kiev. Wood, the EBU's head of new technology, told the DTG summit: 'What they say in Europe is that the UK is the market leader for TV, and the UK is considered to make sensible decisions about new technology, but a market leader has a responsibility to lead the market responsibly. 'We are all in favour of a single common standard – as long as it's ours.'

Hurdles ahead

Before Canvas can go ahead it must overcome two hurdles: the BBC Trust and the Competition Commission. The BBC Trust must decide if Canvas is a good way to spend public money, if it will benefit the public, and whether it will harm other commercial businesses. The Competition Commission has to look at the impact on other businesses and the power of Canvas to dictate prices.

The commission recently ruled against Project Kangaroo, which would have created a single online venue for on-demand – both free and paid-for – from BBC Worldwide, Channel 4, ITV and Five. But the BBC believes that Canvas won't share this fate because it isn't a commercial venture.

If it survives regulatory scrutiny and finds the commercial partners, the first Canvas-ready products are expected to arrive in early 2010, and the BBC estimates that 3.3million Canvas products could be in use by the end of 2012, roughly one-sixth of British homes – but not all of them will be connected to the internet.

Many of them will just be used as PVRs, but they will be ready to offer much more when their owners choose to make connection. And if Canvas is a success you can bet that the standard will be extended so that games consoles and other devices can access the same wealth of online content, pre-prepared for the TV screen.


First published in What Satellite and Digital TV Issue 274