Monday, 22 February 2010

Seesaw online TV: review - "TV on demand" will take off

Seesaw from Arqiva is a new video on demand (or VOD) service which lets you watch previously-transmitted TV programmes from (currently) the BBC, Channel 4 (4od) and Five, streamed over the internet to your computer. You can't download anything, it's streaming-only.

Unlike BBC iPlayer and similar offerings from other channels, it isn't restricted to "catchup TV" for recent shows - it went live with over 3000 hours of content, mostly archive TV from the last decade, so there's a wide selection of programmes you can view on demand, from The Apprentice and Little Britain to White Teeth, even past series of Doctor Who from certain years:

No account or login is required. It's free, funded by ads (can't skip, can pause) - note there are ads even for the BBC programmes you watch via Seesaw because the commercial arm of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, did a deal with Seesaw.

If you click on the picture while an ad is playing, it'll pause the playback and open another tab to take you to the website of the advertiser, which is a nice touch. You can easily go back to the previous tab and resume playing.

Seesaw's service is still in beta currently so don't expect perfection, but it does pretty much what it says on the tin. It can be jerky of sound and pic though, depending on the time of day - when lots of people are on the Net, it's not very good, but it's the same with other VOD services like iPlayer.

You don't have to download any software or login, but it's designed only for Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari on Windows or Mac computers (but from my testing Chrome in Windows works fine, though Opera doesn't).

It's certainly convenient to be able to search several channels' programmes in one place, in case you can't remember which channel broadcast a particular programme you missed.

In terms of content, although Press Association releases say that Seesaw have deals with "independent production companies who produce content for ITV", there's no ITV channel listing. So I'm not sure about ITV content. If they could get all the main free-to-view UK channels or indeed other channels on board too, Seesaw will be one to watch, pardon the pun.

Other similar free online TV services have more channels, on the non-UK front anyway (see my FreeTube free online TV review).

Finding programmes to watch, and watching

As you'd expect you can view by Channel (e.g. just BBC programmes). Or you can view by Category (Comedy, Drama, Factual, Lifestyle, Entertainment, Sport - dunno why it's not alphabetical).

Within each view, certain shows are automatically Featured, but you can browse programme titles alphabetically:

Alternatively you can search, and it cleverly offers suggested titles in a dropdown as you search:

But it doesn't offer searching by name of actor, programme description etc. Hopefully that'll come?

It shows all episodes for the year for a given series and you just click the name of the episode you want to see, then click on the picture to start it playing.

It will "turn the lights down" to heighten the viewing experience. But you can always turn the lights back up:

The controls are as you'd expect to pause, fast forward/rewind with the slider (except during ads), turn subtitles on or off, mute, volume up or down, etc:

And there's a full screen option (Esc to exit):

For trivia buffs

Seesaw uses the technology produced by the ill-fated Project Kangaroo, started up between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to set up a joint video on demand service.

Kangaroo was killed off when commercial broadcasters objected and the Competition Commission said No, so Seesaw's parent company Arqiva bought Kangaroo's assets for £8 million in 2009.

Any points to note?

I've mentioned above it works on common browsers on most computers.

It seems to slow down my computer a lot but that could be a coincidence.

Also, there's a bug in that in Internet Explorer 8 (but not Firefox). If you go to full screen view then back to normal size, the controls move downwards "below" the picture so you can't get at anything except the Pause icon; clicking to start the show playing again fixes it, but obviously then you have to watch it again from scratch:

Seesaw's terms say you can only use Seesaw if you're a UK "natural person (i.e. not a company or another business entity)" over 16. So non-UK people can't use Seesaw, though I don't know how they'd detect geospoofing which is pretty easy to do these days.

  • Aside: I've never known a company that could watch TV or surf to a site, except through the medium of a human being, so I don't see the point of banning companies. Do they mean, you can't use it through a company internet connection, or at work or college? If so, why don't they say so? But then I'm weird like that, I actually like to look at Terms and Privacy policies.

Their use of "High, Medium, Low" in the controls (only visible when you first start playback) might confuse some. That's to do with the speed of your Net connection, if you've got a fast internet connection pick High, else pick Medium or Low. I think they should use "My internet connection is: High speed Broadband, Normal broadband, Dial-Up" instead. At least they will provide a warning if you ought to switch to a lower bandwidth option.

There's the usual "Not suitable for under 18" type of age verification which is easy to just click on:

But they do offer a form of parental control, again probably not too tough for kids these days to get round.

The future?

In future, Seesaw intend to offer premium content which must be paid for, e.g. high profile US dramas.

AP quotes Seesaw's controller John Keeling as saying:

"This way of watching television will be on TVs from this year. One of the fastest selling electronic goods is an HDMI cable which connects a laptop to the back of the TV and bingo, you're online and your TV has become an enormous monitor for your laptop."

I think he's right. As I said in my iPlayer review, if you can hook up your computer to your TV, obviously that'll be much more friendly on the eyes and family in terms of watching stuff. Some computers can be connected directly, some need converters. It's easier to do now than it was. If there's demand for a howto blog post on this, please let me know in a comment.

However broadband speeds, or perhaps Seesaw speeds, do need to be a lot faster, more reliable and less jerky if consumers are going to migrate to watching TV over the internet; otherwise, it can be too painful.

I like the semi-interactive feature where you can click on an ad that's showing, to go to the advertiser's webpage. Now that following a consultation last year the UK will be allowing product placement on most TV programmes (to help commercial broadcasters whose revenues are suffering in the downturn), there's scope for Seesaw to set it up so that a viewer can click on the image of the product to go to the webpage for that product!

I must admit I've gone to As Seen On TV before because I really liked a jacket or whatever that I'd seen on a TV show, but I've never been able to find the item I wanted. While on the one hand one doesn't want to condone blatant commercialisation of everything, there's still room to do this sort of "click to buy" thing and stay on the right side of the line.

I predict it'll be coming on YouTube, anyway. Convergence, here we come!

(First heard of via the IAB ).

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