Monday, 1 February 2010

SeeSaw: Virtual Tour

As recently reported, new video-on-demand service SeeSaw has now entered a month-long closed beta stage, and thanks to a complicated ruse involving disguises, carefully doctored door access cards, a bit of Tom-Cruise-in-Mission-Impossible-style lowering ourselves from the ceiling, leaping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, and pre-registering on the SeeSaw website, we’re in there.

For those not up to speed with these things, a while back BBC Worldwide announced plans for a multi-broadcaster video-on-demand system, with a working title of Project Kangaroo (a subtle nod to Hullabaloo and Custard, the 1960s marsupial launch mascots for BBC-2, we suspect).The plan was to offer back catalogue content from the Beeb, ITV and Channel Four to anyone willing to pay a fee. Based largely on the engine already used for BBC iPlayer, it would have brought together VoD content from the three main UK broadcasters for the first time.

However, while Project Kangaroo was still being developed, it was referred to the Competition Commission by the OFT, with concerns that “the platform could be too powerful”. With a lot of work already completed on the project, the technology was put up for sale, finally being purchased by Arquiva in July 2009. Amongst the assets purchased was the name to be used once the project launched fully: SeeSaw (probably not a subtle nod to the 1980s BBC pre-school programme, we suspect).

So, what is SeeSaw, we type rhetorically? Well, much the same as was planned, with deals having been signed with BBC Worldwide, Channel Four and Five to provide content, though instead of content being paid for by the end user, it is to be supported by advertising, much the same as you’ll see on 4OD and ITV Player, only with a friendlier, iPlayer style interface.

Thus far, presumably due to their rampant successophobia, ITV have yet to sign up for SeeSaw, but SeeSaw have signed content deals with a number of indies, making independently produced ITV drama series such as Bad Girls, Doc Martin and Footballers Wives available to the service. But enough of us copying things we’ve just read on MediaGuardian’s website, on with the screenies. Click on the images to see full-sized versions:

PRE-EMPTIVE DISLCAIMER: These shots and such are from the closed beta version of SeeSaw, and as such aren’t necessarily indicative of what the finished service will be like. It’s probably very close though. It’s not as if they’ll take it this far then redo the whole thing using 320x240 RealVideo windows and only carry programming from BBC Alba.

[4.45PM UPDATE: There are now a few updates to this article, helpfully marked ‘UPDATE’.]

image Here’s the main window you’ll se as soon as you log in. The “highlight windows” at top can be moved around by clicking on the arrows, though they move from left to right automatically after a few seconds anyway. As you can see, a list of recent programming is shown beneath that (containing only Channel 4 and E4 shows right now), alongside buttons for the three broadcasters signed up thus far, and three genre icons, which we suspect will be used to contain the bought-in non-BBC/Four/Five programming when the whole thing goes live.

[UPDATE FOR FIREFOX USERS: One thing we’d meant to mention here. If you’re using Firefox and the AdBlockerPro add-on, you may well need to whitelist before you can watch anything. If not, it seems the whole thing hangs when it’s not allowed to access the streaming adverts. It’s easy enough to fix – right click on the ABP icon (bottom-right of your Firefox window), and select “Disable on”. Given the presence of adverts is how SeeSaw are paying their bills, it’s fair enough really.

Additional performance tip, this time relating to all Flash video on Firefox but worth pointing out here: You might notice a short pause every ten seconds or so when watching streaming video through Firefox. This is because the program takes a few microseconds out every ten seconds to save the state of your tabs. You can’t really stop this without losing the ability to restore your session after a crash, but you can reduce the impact by increasing the frequency of saves:

The following from the relentlessly excellent

“By opening about:config in your Firefox address bar, then typing browser.sessionstore.interval in the filter box, you’ll see a value of 10000, which is in milliseconds. (Meaning your session is saved every 10 seconds.) I changed this to 300000, or every 5 minutes, as I don’t have the urgent need for tab restoration. If you feel like being more on the safe side, try increasing it to something a bit lower, say 120000, or every 2 minutes.”

And there you go.]

image If you leave the highlight window alone for a moment, a short clip from the programme being displayed plays out. This is politely muted, but you can move the volume slider to hear the clip.

image The SeeSaw content can be viewed by genre, if you so wish. Because we’re nice people, we’ve screengrabbed lists of the shows under each category, but we’ll come to that later.

imageYou can also browse content by broadcaster. Hopefully this will grow to cover more than just three broadcasters as time goes on, and it’d be really good if the service eventually expanded to cover programming not deemed popular enough to be shown on ‘proper’ telly in the UK. We’re thinking of The Colbert Report, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Newstopia, all the stuff we’ve been banging on about endlessly for the last few years, basically.

image Once you select a programme, you’re presented with a familiar iPlayer-ish interface, with a listing of episodes to choose from. Where more than one series is available, each series is given its own sub-menu.

image Much as with iPlayer, there’s a standard “Are You Sure You’re Old Enough To Watch This, Sonny?” warning for mature content, which we can’t help but feel completely fails to stop any kids watching this sort of thing. We just wish the VoD services had been around when we were tiny, we could have been secretly watching Spitting Image even after our parents realised just how unsuitable it was for an eight-year-old. Interesting to note that SeeSaw (currently) seems to be going with the BBC iPlayer “honour” system, as opposed to the 4OD system that offers parents the chance to set a PIN for age-restricted content.

We’re secretly hoping that when the full service launches, a little CGI Simon Bates will appear, telling you just why Nathan Barley is rated 18. It could pop up in the corner of your screen, like Microsoft Office’s popular animated paper clip.

image Before each programme, one or two adverts are shown. It seems to us that you’re served one advert before the programme if it’s a BBC show, two if it’s from a commercial channel. For anyone used to watching BBC output on iPlayer, it can seem a little strange having your viewing of BBC shows interrupted by commercials (“Bah! I’ve already paid for this – abolish the entire BBC!”), but then if you were watching the exact same programmes on Dave, you’d be sitting through much longer breaks, so go figure. There’s another ad break halfway through each show, but again, a much shorter one than you’d see on a digital channel repeat. With programmes on the commercial channels, these are in the regular predetermined ad slots, but with BBC shows the commercial breaks crash haphazardly into the end of a scene (in the case of The Young Ones, just in time to bugger up a cutaway joke). So, pretty much the same as on Dave, GOLD, or Comedy Central, then.


The adverts themselves seem to be programme specific. Of the Young Ones episodes we watched, each was preceded by that annoying advert for vodka, where a bunch of insufferable trendies (the sort that only exist in adverts for aimed at Apple Mac-owning types) have a jolly old party in some woods. With the episodes of Nathan Barley we looked at, the commercials were for a hair-related product and a Jamie Oliver-fronted supermarket. While that could be down to coincidence, and will almost certainly change once the service grows in popularity, it could be annoying if you want to sit through an entire series of the same programme and have to sit through the same booze-related tale of some aspirational lifestyle twats.

While the adverts are being shown, the user interface is restricted to ‘pause’, ‘play’, ‘volume’ and ‘full screen’, to prevent you forwarding through them, or indeed, rewinding them to catch any interesting information you’d missed about interest rates. Interestingly, in the beta, outdated adverts occasionally crop up. We’ve been treated to an advert for BrĂ¼no (“in cinemas 17th July!”), and one of the bank adverts featuring Kevin Bishop that didn’t seem to appear quite so often after he’d acted like a colossal bellend at the 2008 British Comedy Awards.

Personal note: if the adverts being served up were also collected from the archives, we’d flipping love it. Now, this clearly isn’t going to happen (why would companies pay a fortune to advertising twonks for new ads if they were going to re-use old ones on here, a potential Future Of Television?), but just think how much more attention you’d pay to the commercials if classic Tango or Guinness spots were likely to be delivered. Hey, they’d still be advertising current products, and tapping into the mindsets of people who, by the very fact they’re using SeeSaw, are happy to meander down Recollection Crescent.

imageBroadcasts of Channel Four shows are preceded by the 4OD ident, zooming out to reveal a traditional Channel Four ident (council flat version). This is accompanied by Channel Four Announcer Lady telling you that you’re watching a 4OD programme on SeeSaw, which makes it feel a little bit like you’ve somehow unlocked an easter egg for ‘proper’ Channel Four. Sadly, BBC shows are only preceded by a generic BBC animation, with no announcer. Five programmes are… well, we didn’t bother with anything from Five, and won’t until The People Versus Jerry Sadowitz makes up part of their roster.

image In what we assume is part of the beta process, some programmes are bookended by additional ‘sponsor’ bumper advertising. This seems to be taken from the original broadcast (Grolsch were sponsoring Four’s comedy output at around the time of Nathan Barley, weren’t they?), which is bad news for anyone looking to revisit shows from 2009’s Annoying Three Mobile-Based Stand-Up Routine ad bumpers era.

imagePolitely and quite splendidly, once you stop jiggling your mouse pointer around the screen and just watch the programme on offer, everything but the programme itself fades modestly into darkness. A lovely little touch. And yes, we did specifically pick the episode of Nathan Barley where the opening credits were a Spectrum loading screen, just so we could screen capture it here.

imageAs the programme is running, many programmes also offer subtitles, which are clean, crisp and unobtrusive enough. We suspect that by the time the full service goes live, all available shows may well have subtitles on offer, or at least those made in the UK, where the original Ceefax/Teletext subs should be available for use.


One of the main selling points of SeeSaw is that it plays host to many ‘classic’ Doctor Who stories. with one serial each from Doctors two through seven. While we admit we don’t really care about ‘classic’ Doctor Who, several of you probably do, so here’s a rundown of the stories in question: 1967’s Tomb Of The Cybermen, 1974’s Planet Of The Spiders, 1977’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang, 1984’s The Caves of Androzani, 1985’s The Mark of the Rani, and 1989’s Survival. As the screenshot above shows, the series are separated by year, which seems to be the case for most (but not all) BBC shows. 4OD programming tends to be sorted by series number. Not very interesting that fact, but a fact nonetheless.

You’ll note the similarity between the video pages for SeeSaw and…

 image…BBC’s iPlayer, which was (of course) the genesis of SeeSaw. However, where the programme information on iPlayer is tucked away in a drop-down info box, SeeSaw gives you the first few lines of the synopsis, cast list and so on. Again, not interesting, but still true.

imageOnto the content of the programmes themselves. Pleasingly, the service offers up full, uncut episodes of The Young Ones, with the episodes here being up to 35 minutes long, retaining the full band performances. This might sound a bit obvious, but in the past when shown on UK Gold, Paramount and even sometimes on BBC Two, episodes of the show have been crudely trimmed to 29 minutes (even less, in the case of commercial channels) in order to fit a half-hour slot. We get the full versions here, with (quite crucially) everything left uncensored too. Again, that might sound obvious, but even now channels like Dave hack a certain word from the “Kelloggs representative is pestered by a policeman in sunglasses” scene, in case we’ve missed out on the blindingly obvious point that it’s making, and somehow walk away from the episode actually thinking racism is cool.

image In the case of older shows, a pleasing amount of supplementary data is made available. Yes, much, much more could have been included for trainspottery types like us, but we’ll try and keep things realistic. We can’t really expect deleted scenes and half an hour of rushes for every episode, and a full list of cast, writers and so on aren’t a bad compromise. If it helps any, fellow trainspottery types get over that, we’ve checked the cast list on SeeSaw for the Young Ones episode ‘Time’, and Paul Merton is credited as “Paul Merton”, not as “Paul Martin” (as seen in the actual end credits of the episode, with it being his pre-Equity name, as every schoolboy knows).

 imageNote that for the BBC shows we’ve looked at, you have the option of Low, Medium and High bandwidth video options…


…while for the Channel Four output, this was missing, but you do have the option of subtitles on 4OD programmes, which you don’t get for the BBC programmes (we’d expect that to change by launch).

So, what programmes actually are there so far?

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but with no huge surprises. Don’t expect to see Emu’s Broadcasting Company or The Imaginatively Titled Punt & Dennis Show on there, for instance. We’ve screencapped lists of the shows by genre, so you can see what to expect in full:

COMEDY: Includes Brass Eye (but not the 2001 special), Peep Show, The Young Ones, Bottom, Big Train, Desmonds, Absolutely, The Adam and Joe Show, Father Ted, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and surprisingly, ABC (Australia) show We Can Be Heroes, which we don’t think has even been shown on TV over here.

DRAMA: Includes Teachers, 56 episodes of Shameless, Social Secretary, Traffik, Nick Broomfield’s great one-off Ghosts, Quatermass, Cold Lazarus, (the 1981) Day Of The Triffids, and all that Doctor Who.

ENTERTAINMENT: Including Celebrity Big Brother (only 3 episodes), Distraction, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Shrink Rap (including the uncomfortable Chris Langham episode), Derren Brown’s Mind Control, and utterly devaluing the word ‘entertainment’ by its very inclusion in the category, Balls Of fucking Steel.

FACTUAL: Amongst other shows, Bodyshock, 2001 John Cleese and Liz Hurley BBC documentary series we’d utterly forgotten The Human Face, 1990 Attenborough series The Trials of Life, Michael Palin’s Around The World in 80 Days, The Root Of All Evil? and more Time Team than you could shake a pickaxe at.

LIFESTYLE: Not our bag, but it does include Kitchen Nightmares and Big Chef Takes on Little Chef, amongst lots of other shows we can’t really be bothered to list.

SPORT: A tricky thing to make available in such a service, what with sport being (a) best enjoyed live, and (b) very expensive to get the rights to broadcast, in many cases. Only four shows on offer, all from 4OD, with single episodes of Olympic History, Track and Field, Stars of Torino and Beach Volleyball on offer. We’re expecting the range to grow a lot when the service goes live, and if ITV do finally clamber aboard we’d love to see The Big Match Revisited here. If SeeSaw could get a deal with ESPN in place, output from ESPN Classic could be a very useful thing to dip into.

Right now, we count 32 BBC shows, 104 Channel Four shows and just ten from Five.

[UPDATE: Except, not for the first time, we’re utterly wrong – the screengrabs we’ve taken are only the highlighted shows by genre. By using the A-Z tabs, you’re able to uncover more surprises, such as the full series of Frank Skinner’s 1994 sitcom Blue Heaven, Dead Set (under ‘comedy’, when surely it’s more of a drama), all of Drop the Dead Donkey, That Mitchell and Webb Look (mentioned in a lot of the pre-publicity, so it’s a surprise it’s not on the “featured’ section), and The TV Book Club, amongst others.

We certainly hope that when the series goes live there’s a “view all” option on the drop-down box for the A-Z, or at the very least “view A-M / view N-Z” options, as trawling through each letter in case you’ve missed something you like is a bit of a chore.]


And there you go. Potential improvements? Well, a “play all” option for each series could be handy, especially for people pumping content from their computer to their ‘proper’ telly. After all, it’s a bit of a mood killer having to get up and dick around with your computer just when you’re nice and comfy on the sofa. Meanwhile, for people at the other end of the geek scale (hello!), it’d be handy if viewing full-screen video on your second monitor stayed full-size when you click on something on your primary monitor, though to be fair that’s likely to be an issue with Flash itself. Maybe a way of putting SeeSaw content through VLC would work here, but likely to cause issues with DRM.

While the selection of shows is likely to grow as time goes on, there is a notable lack of BBC programmes right now. This is almost certainly down to the fact all of the archive 4OD shows have already been Flashed up to the gills for, well, 4OD, while the BBC’s output would have to be prepared anew (which might explain why many BBC shows have three picture quality settings, and the 4OD shows don’t – the Beeb shows have been prepared especially for SeeSaw). We can but hope there’s a lot more BBC content up there not too long after the full launch, along with the rest of the Channel Four archive on 4OD.

With the whole enterprise geared towards maximising ad revenue, it’s likely only the most popular archive programming will be converted for the service, but we can only hope SeeSaw does the more honourable thing, and strives to become the Spotify of television. If the company are looking at a revenue model of free-with-ads, ad-free-with-sub (a la Spotify), it’d make huge sense to host as much content as possible. Would we pay £10 per month just to see a few dozen programmes that are on Dave, Comedy Central, E4 and More4 all the time anyway? Nope. Would we pay £10 per month for the chance to revisit Carrott’s Lib, The Pall-Bearer’s Revue or Who Dares Wins whenever we want? Yes, we certainly would.

All in all, SeeSaw does look like a very promising service. Even at this stage, there’s a lot there for people with all manner of tastes – even people stupid enough to like Balls Of Steel are catered for. Providing the service becomes popular, it would be great if it could reach a number of new platforms, such as the iPhone, Xbox 360, Wii, or maybe even a range of web-capable TV sets, such as Samsung Series 8, 9 or beyond [FAO Samsung – we are willing to mention your TVs as often as it takes to earn us a free one]. If SeeSaw does things correctly, who knows how successful it could become in the future. The interface is certainly slick enough to be made operational on a touch screen, suggesting it could become a killer app for the forthcoming iPad. Here’s hoping everything works out successfully.


No ITV, then?

It’s a bit of shame that ITV haven’t seen fit to get involved yet, given the fact they’ve got the UK’s most impressive programme archive outside of the BBC. Sadly, it seems they don’t really want us watching any of it. ITV have recently revamped their own ITV Player (itself now looking not unlike iPlayer, though running on Silverlight, presumably in order to annoy people), and taken the opportunity to remove almost all of the interesting shows from their “classics” section. When we looked at the service last April, archive gems like Catweazle, Whicker’s World, Press Gang, Doctor At Large and The Army Game were available. The “new and improved” ITV Classics section has removed all of those, replacing them with the likes of ‘Piers Morgan On’, ‘The Justin Lee Collins Show’ and ‘Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend’. The name of that section again: “TV Classics”.

Oh, ITV. Is there anything you won’t make a complete and utter bollocks of? Really, there's got to be a 40-50% chance that ITV Plc is all one big Producers-style scam, hasn’t there? Either that or everyone at ITV just wants the internet to go away, meaning it would somehow become 1980 again, and they can get their viewers and Muppet Show back.

image Pop Fact: “Piers Morgan On” is so called because by the time to continuity announcer says “Now on ITV1, it’s time for Piers Morgan On” everyone will have switched over anyway. Giving it a longer title would merely have proved pointless.


2 .:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic read! Thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

A most interesting and entertaining read - thank you!

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