Thursday 28 January 2010

SeeSaw under the spotlight

SeeSaw has been a long time coming. It's what the BBC's Project Kangaroo became after it was forced by the Competition Commission to sell it off and Arqiva acquired it. Now in beta, it's due to go live to the public in the next few weeks.

The first impression is of something that has been thrown together very fast. The typeface is unpleasant and the layout is difficult to navigate. What is most obvious immediately is that there is very little content on the site. I can only expect that much more will become available before public launch and that it will continue to increase thereafter.

Programme discovery

The challenge for SeeSaw is going to be in programme discovery. The intention of Project Kangaroo had been to make available the entire archives of the Beeb, C4 and Five. If it becomes reality, it is a huge amount of content to sort and a very difficult task to display it to the viewer in a meaningful way.

At the top of the page is a 'carousel', a style of menu deployed by many of the Video On Demand (VOD) players, including Joost, Hulu, Livestation and the iPlayer. SeeSaw are using it to highlight a small amount of featured content. There is a challenge to keep this fresh and interesting for the individual viewer and there is currently no way for the individual to provide preferences.

Below the carousel is a box offering catchup TV. Although it does not specifically state it, this section has links to programmes that have recently aired. There are only seven shows on it, all from Channel 4 properties. This leaves big questions about the role of SeeSaw in catchup television - as opposed to archival - and where the content is going to come from: just Channel 4 or will it include Five and BBC material? Kangaroo was supposed to carry anything older than what is available on the iPlayer.

The box beside it "If you really love TV..." seems to me totally redundant. I cannot understand its purpose. There are three further boxes below: 'Classic comedy'; 'The best years of your life?'; and 'Critically-acclaimed modern drama'. These categories seem to be entirely arbirtrarily chosen and the content within them is unexpected. Girl Who Cries Blood is in 'The best years of your life?'. The category does have a '?', I admit.

Meanwhile the top navigation bar has: Categories, with a limited number of them; Channels, containing BBC, 4oD and Five, only the last of which is a channel; and a search box. In principle this makes sense but the sub-menus need to be extended.

Choosing what to watch

Clicking on a channel provides series names, showing by default 'Featured'. These appear to be a random assortment. It is not clear whether these will remain constant or how they will be updated. There is, once again, no option for individual filtering. You can select by A-Z.

I chose the first programme, The Line of Beauty. The programme page is quite nicely laid out but also the easiest part of the interface to get right. There is a video screen at the top and below are the programme details in a column next to an episode menu. There is some guidance both on the screen itself and at the bottom of the page referring to strong language and scenes of a sexual nature.

On clicking to play, a guidance note pops up, asking me to confirm my age. In small type there are links to setting up parental controls and 'find out more' presumably about parental controls. The parental controls, if they're going to be part of the service, should be much more evident. There are links to them in the footer but even if you scroll down, you might not see the reference in the tiny writing.

There are frequently two ads followed by a programme sponsor. This is frustrating but I doubt that SeeSaw will fill all of its inventory if the service takes off, meaning that double spots disappear. Clicking on an ad, hoping to pause, I was taken to the brand's page that should make sense commercially but these sorts of click-through deals are few and far between, largely unproven to generate revenue for publisher or advertiser.

Video streaming experience

You click to play and the lights go down. I like this. It's not a novel idea - Hulu has it, for example - but it's good. Moving your mouse brings the lights back up.

There are frequently two ads followed by a programme sponsor. This is frustrating but I doubt that SeeSaw will fill all of its inventory if the service takes off, meaning that double spots disappear. Clicking on an ad, hoping to pause, I was taken to the brand's page. 

Some sites have toyed with adaptive bitrates, which means that you get a quality of stream that adapts to your downstream bandwidth, as it varies. It is possible with SeeSaw to fix Low, Medium or High bandwidth by moving the mouse over the screen when the ads have finished and the programme begins. These should just be under the screen, as should the volume and 'full screen' controls.

The screen size is fixed, unless you opt for full screen. This is a weakness. I particularly like the way Zattoo manages screen size, so that you can set it to whatever you like, regardless of the bandwidth that you have chosen.

That said, the flash-based video is of good quality and consistency, even at low bandwidth.

Final words

I'm left disappointed by SeeSaw. Arqiva bought the assets of Project Kangaroo but it isn't entirely clear what they picked up with that bargain. The user interface is poor. The available content is minimal, although I expect that is temporary. There are no social aspects, even just for sharing what you're watching on Facebook, let alone a proper integration with it or Twitter. Project Kangaroo was expensive to develop.There are some very significant challenges for SeeSaw and it appears from the beta that there is still a lot of work to do.