Tech Talk: David Behrens on the latest revolution in TV viewing

WOULDN’T it be nice if the TV companies agreed to transmit just the programmes you like, when you’re ready to watch?

We’ve had on-demand programming, after a fashion, for a long time; it’s what video recorders have always done. But, of course, the onus was always on you to tape the programmes in the first place.

That’s not the case with true on-demand services. Instead, the broadcaster transmits the programme direct to you when you want it, irrespective of whether it was first shown last night or last January.

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The best-known service is the BBC’s iPlayer, but – as the BBC would be the first to acknowledge – it has only ever been an interim solution, since most of us would prefer to watch programmes on our TVs, not our computers.

Enter YouView, a service that is to the iPlayer what the talkies were to early cinema. It delivers not only BBC programmes but also those of ITV, Channel Four and Channel Five – and it does so through the Freeview box beneath your big-screen TV. What’s more, it can stream paid-for content like movies and classics from the TV archive.

Everything is integrated into the same menu system, with an electronic programme guide that lets you go back in time as well as forward, so you can watch programmes you would otherwise have missed. You need to buy a new set-top box, but after that the basic service is free.

All the major channels are behind it and as of last spring it has been run by Lord Sugar, no less. The BBC’s director general Mark Thompson has pretty much bet the farm on YouView.

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But that’s where the good news ends, because for the last year, YouView has been stuck at the starting gate. The reason: they haven’t made it work yet.

And by the time they do, rival on-demand services from the likes of Sky and Virgin may have eaten Lord Sugar’s lunch.

Neither will be free, but there are other services out there which are. Freesat, for instance, is also backed by the BBC and ITV, and already delivers the iPlayer and ITV Player to your TV, along with content from YouTube and elsewhere, on some boxes. Prices start at £180, for which you get a unit that also records programmes in high-definition on to a built-in hard drive.

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