Sky today launched its Now TV vid-on-demand service, but only managed to notify the right regulator hours before the off as it's getting harder to remember who controls what.
Video-on-demand services in the UK are regulated by ATVOD (the Authority for Television On Demand), and on-demand services are required to notify the regulator before launch. Yesterday morning Sky still hadn't yet coughed up the £10,000 membership fee for TV Now, and there were concerns at ATVOD that it might decide not to bother given the way Ofcom has been awarding responsibility lately. However we gather that Sky finally decided to cough up the fee and register with just hours to go before opening day at TV Now.
Last week Ofcom, which outranks ATVOD in the regulator hierarchy, told ATVOD to take another look at who has editorial responsibility for Viacom channels syndicated by Sky on its existing IPTV service Anytime+.
ATVOD had decided, on checking out the contracts between Sky and Viacom, that Sky was editorially responsible for Anytime+ content and thus subject to ATVOD regulation. But Sky appealed to Ofcom, and on Friday last week Ofcom asked ATVOD to take another look (pdf, dry and hard to read). Ofcom went out of its way to avoid criticising ATVOD, but claimed the situation had changed in the light of new precedent set by Ofcom in the case of BBC Worldwide and Mediaset in April (pdf, dryer and even harder to read).
Sky Anytime+ provides access to programmes made by Viacom, including those broadcast on Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central. Viacom supplies the programmes to Sky, so Sky says it's not editorially responsible, but Viacom contends that the programmes are dropped into the Sky Anytime+ interface and Sky could decide not to do that, so responsibility lies with Sky.
ATVOD looked at the contractual agreement between the two companies, and noted they disagree factually on the process by which programmes are selected. In January ATVOD announced that Sky who would have to shoulder the burden of policing the content. Sky went running to Ofcom who has now kicked the ball back to ATVOD.
Ofcom, the government quango, can always override ATVOD. Ofcom is ultimately responsible for policing broadcast all UK media, ensuing that standards of decency and fairness are adhered to and levying fines when they're not, but only covers broadcast-like services.
ATVOD is a private company, and was tasked by Ofcom with regulating on-demand content. So ATVOD ensures that children are protected, advertising is marked as such and programmes don't promote violence, drug taking and the like. IPTV providers operating in the UK are required to join ATVOD, and pay a sliding-scale membership rate starting at just under a hundred quid and rising to £10,000 based on the provider's revenue and commercial nature.
Deciding which media falls under ATVOD's remit isn't always obvious. On the Freeview platform, for example, Sports Tonight (channel 112) does not come under ATVOD as it has scheduled programmes despite being delivered over IP, but The Space (117) does come under ATVOD as it's an on-demand service providing Shakespeare in Urdu and similarly-gripping content (actually the John Peel stuff is worth watching, but some Shakespeare in English would be good).
But even when a service is clearly on-demand, such as Sky Anytime+ or the about-to-be-launched Now TV, ATVOD still has to identify who is editorially responsible for the content. It's notable that several content providers including ITV Archive and the Viacom channels are registered with ATVOD for their own services, but listing Sky's Anytime+ as a supported platform, so could well end up being responsible for the programmes they provide.
Now TV isn't listed anywhere in the ATVOD system, but ATVOD has confirmed to us that it received notification from Now TV yesterday: just in the nick of time.
Television is fundamentally changing: Sky's launch of Now TV isn't an addition to its satellite service, in the long term it’s a replacement for it. The very concept of broadcast TV could disappear within a handful of decades, and Sky is making ready for that, so the way in which we decide to regulate the replacement is extremely important. ®