Has Microsoft cracked TV-on-demand with MSN Video in Windows?
The premise of on-demand TV is gloriously simple. The TV you want, when you want it, a mere touch of a button away.
In the UK, BBC’s iPlayer has pushed the concept into the public consciousness, serving up all the TV-licence-funded goodness that any PC, Mac or Linux user could possibly ask for. Arguably one of the driving forces for the on-demand revolution, iPlayer has blossomed from a compelling concept into an intrinsic part of many people’s viewing habits. Freeing broadcasts from the confines of the living room, and allowing TV to sprawl freely wherever the internet is accessible; the on-demand revolution is set to change the face of televisual broadcasting forever.
Such bombast does, of course, conveniently sidestep the current issues. BBC’s iPlayer eschews the need for advertising as it’s funded entirely by the payments of UK TV licence holders. Other services aren’t so fortunate. SeeSaw is another service which is just starting to gather momentum, with shows plucked from ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Most of the existing content is free, but with the imminent arrival of popular US shows, SeeSaw is going to have to grapple with the thorny issue of pay per view charges. And not wanting to miss a piece of the action, Microsoft, with its recently announced MSN Video Player, has also decided to join the on-demand fray.
Even in their infancy, both sites boast an impressive roster of full-fat programming. Look past all the lightweight fluff, and MSN Video shares a fair amount of content with its rival in the on-demand playground, Seesaw. Spanning everything from car-crash classics such as Wife Swap to the really-couldn’t-be-any-more-annoying antics of Trinny and Susannah on What Not to Wear, through to a rich seam of UK comedy, there’s enough to whet any appetite. With entire series of The League of Gentlemen, Brass Eye, Marion and Geoff and Nathan Barley, just to mention a few, there’s enough to satisfy viewers until the desperate, nagging need for new content sets in.
Like any fledgling ventures, though, both services have their weaknesses. Head on over to the MSN Video Player website and the first thing you’ll notice – beyond the bland, innocuous page design – is the vast amount of filler content. Movie trailers, music videos, brief news reports and interviews with vacuous Hollywood stars jostle for position, threatening to completely obscure the juicy viewing morsels elsewhere. It’s a far cry from SeeSaw’s efforts, where slick design and a simple, attractive layout combine with a notable absence of visual fluff and filler.
The price of all this free content is pretty miniscule, though, with both services keeping the bank balance steady with short 30-second advertising spots played before each full-length program. It’s like Spotify does video, obviously with vastly less content, but the burning question is: how will these services evolve? The cost of new content has to come from somewhere, and the question is whether viewers will soon find themselves bombarded by multiple adverts between each and every showing.
SeeSaw’s to be congratulated for boldly venturing into the realms of pay-per-view, but, if it was hoping to snare viewers with the lure of inexpensive gogglebox action, then they’re well wide of the mark. Grey’s Anatomy and Brothers and Sisters were both available at the time of writing for the princely sum of 99p per episode and £17.99 for an entire series. If that sounds reasonable, then buckle up, you’re in for a shock. That’s the cost to rent the episodes. Buy a single episode, and your 99p buys you the ability to watch it within 30 days. Buy a series, and you get 90 days. Once you start watching any episode, you have 48 hours to finish watching it before the rental expires. I think I’ll just go to Blockbuster, thanks.
Microsoft, however, has bigger plans. Internet broadcasting has allowed TV to break free from the lounge, but, as Microsoft is acutely aware, it’s the success of on-demand TV services such as MSN Video which could eventually push subscribers away from the multi-channel, monthly subscription of Sky TV.
Just today, it announced that the MSN Video Player is seamlessly integrated into its Windows Media Center software. Fire up the TV guide, and MSN Video takes pride of place alongside Sky Player and the selection of traditional TV channels. It’s early days yet, but I’ve spent the past couple of weeks taking full advantage of all that free content, and you can colour me impressed.
Let’s face it, even if you’re a fully paid-up Sky subscriber with more channels than you know what to do with, there are still some evenings when you’d rather spoon out your own eyeballs than watch what’s on offer. Where you would have previously resigned yourself to watching some nondescript televisual dross to pass the time, brain cells dwindling by the nanosecond, classic series’ such as Ripping Yarns and vintage Doctor Who are now just a couple of mouse clicks, or prods of a Media Center remote away. It’s not revolutionary – there’s just not enough content available yet to be able to say that – but it’s a step forward, that’s for sure.