Audiences have always had a desire to watch programmes when they like, despite the best endeavours of broadcast schedulers to give them the right content at the right time. So when – and how – did video on demand start?
The first move, of course, was the home video recorder, which first made it onto the market in the mid-1970s. Not complete video on demand (VoD), of course, but you could got a degree of control over when you watched.
True VoD allows the consumer to decide what to watch and see it more or less immediately. The problem with this is that, back in the days of analogue television, this would require a channel for every user, so it was impractical. It needed digital television delivery, and reasonably fast broadband connectivity, to make it happen.
By the 1990s experiments were happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Enron (remember them!) formed a joint venture with Blockbuster for movie delivery over fibre, although the deal fell through and did little for Enron’s business problems. In the UK, Cambridge Digital Interactive Television was a pioneering development which successfully delivered VoD between 1994 and 1996, ultimately failing because of the problems of clearing content.
At first it was cable television which led the way on VoD, because – especially over digital cable – it could readily provide the bandwidth for a large-scale service. Telcos were spurred to improve their broadband speeds to be able to compete with digital cable, and often started their own VoD services.
Widely available broadband moved the internet from simple text-based communications to the rich content we see today. In 2005 a small group of employees at PayPal designed a site for sharing videos, and YouTube was born.
The first ever video uploaded to YouTube (23 April 2005) was, inevitably about animals. Called Me at the Zoo, it is a frankly embarrassing 18 seconds of a young man standing in front of the elephant enclosure (and almost completely obscuring the animals) while explaining the elephants have really, really long trunks.
Today more than 300 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Yes: those units are the right way around. 300 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. There are those in broadcasting who believe that, if you only look hard enough, every single television programme ever recorded is available on the web somewhere.
Commercial VoD services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have moved on from being a convenient repository of content – the modern equivalent of the Blockbuster store – to creating their own programming, from dramas like Orange is the New Black to The Grand Tour.
As a result, broadcasters are now expected to provide their own VoD services. Catch-up TV services are the most popular, giving the effect of a VCR without the troublesome hardware, and allowing you to watch a programme at your convenience after its original transmission.
Broadcasters are moving into original content for VoD, either as supplementary material for on-air programming or as showcases for new ideas. BBC has even moved its youth-skewed channel BBC3 entirely onto its iPlayer VoD platform, with successful content considered for later broadcast.
According to forecasts by Cisco, video represented 70% of all internet traffic in 2015, and that will be 82% by 2020. Whether it is big budget, Ultra HD premium productions or a day at the zoo, video on demand will dominate our online world.