In the first of a series of extended interviews for our
Professionals survey, which we publish on Wednesday 13
June, Sarah Milton, Head of VOD at Channel 4, tells us about how
4oD got started, her contribution to its continuing success and
outlines some plans for the future of the service.
KAUSER KANJI: Hi Sarah, you've been at Channel
4 since 2004 and were involved in the first iteration of 4oD so
let's start by talking about how the product was developed and the
strategy behind it. Was it as simple as somebody, somewhere saying
"Right, let's launch a video-on-demand service for Channel 4
SARAH MILTON: Not quite that simple. There were
a few people involved, both in what was then the new media division
and also the business development team. I was in the strategy
team, where I had helped on various digital channel initiatives
including the launch of More4, and the decision to take E4 and
Film4 free to air. I was also writing online strategy paper s and
in 2005 I began working on an idea around VOD along with a number
of other people in the organisation. As it gained momentum and
became a solid plan I took the opportunity to move across into the
business and play a role as Content Manager for the launch of
KANJI: So was the 4oD strategy propelled by
"The market has moved so much in terms of consumers
understanding of what VOD is and their willingness to use it and
pay for it online."
MILTON: It was a number of things. I
think it's fair to say that there was a lot going on in the
industry at the time. We'd been focused on PVRs - Sky+ had lately
emerged on the scene - so we were working out how that was going to
affect things. I went to the States to talk to a few people
about PVRs and came back having heard some really interesting ideas
about video-on-demand. Also faster broadband had started rolling
out to the mass market - the internet was starting to be able to
cope with video - and in a sense that was Channel 4's moment as a
broadcaster to make a statement online. There was a defensive
element to it too - our rights position with PACT had quite
recently changed, and we wanted to ensure we were the natural home
for our programmes beyond the linear broadcast window. 4oD
was the result.
KANJI: I remember when 4oD came out very well.
It was a desktop app wasn't it?
MILTON: It was. So funny now given the
prevalence of "apps" in a slightly different context.
KANJI: And when it first launched it was a mix
of free and pay content -
MILTON: It was primarily pay content but it did
move quite rapidly to being free. The ad market got behind it very
quickly so that became a model that was appropriate and achievable
and one that could deliver much greater scale than a pay
proposition was ever going to in those early days when
consumers were getting into VOD for the first time.
KANJI: That's interesting because we're now
almost coming full circle with ITV working on micropayments.
MILTON: Yes, I agree it is coming full circle
to some extent - although the ad funded model remains the most
significant for us. But, to be fair, the market has moved so much
in that time in terms of consumers understanding of what VOD is and
their willingness to use it and pay for it online. Partly I think
because of the mass adoption of apps - in a smartphone / tablet
sense - paying for online services has become much more widely
accepted so that the prospects for a pay, transactional proposition
are better now. Not that we had bad uptake when it was pay when we
launched but it was evident that it ought to be primarily
free to drive scale and get momentum behind 4oD.
KANJI: So, how has 4oD developed over the last
5 years then? You were the first terrestrial broadcaster to launch
a VOD service…?
"There's loads of stuff going on at the moment
including expansion to more platforms and our product team thinking
about and developing a more personalised, cross-platform
MILTON: Yes, we were actually the first
broadcaster anywhere in the world to launch a
comprehensive video-on-demand service. We've gone from being
available on three platforms at launch to, depending on how you
count, twelve plus now including online, TV platforms, games
consoles, smartphones and tablets. The array of options for
accessing 4oD continues to expand and the product itself has
evolved. Our archive service has grown to be over 6,000 hours and
we've improved our ability to recommend content to users. We've
launched 'My 4oD' which allows you to personalise the service -
another step on the roadmap to making the product far more tailored
to individual users. We've done online premieres like Fresh Meat,
Skins, Peep Show, The IT Crowd and New Girl which all form
incentives to register. Increasingly, we now have online exclusive
content - so we had an episode of Misfits which was created just
for online and we've done similar things with Skins and Made in
Chelsea. So there are lots of ways in which the product has evolved
and the availability of it has expanded.
KANJI: And are there any future plans for 4oD
that you're able to talk about?
MILTON: One of the favourite bits of my job is
working out how we develop the product, what platforms it's going
to be made available on next, how we commercialise it and so on.
And it's quite a challenge because you have to tread the line
between lots of different objectives which aren't always
necessarily compatible. So, on the one hand it's a commercial
P&L, generating profit which gets fed back into Channel 4's
commissioning budget. And on the other 4oD is an integral part of
delivering our public service remit because, for example, for
younger users, 4oD is becoming one of the main ways in which they
consume our content. C4's stated ambition of getting to know our
users better - collecting and collating data - is obviously highly
relevant to 4oD too.
So there's loads of stuff going on at the moment including
expansion to more platforms and our product team thinking about and
developing a more personalised, cross-platform experience. 'My 4oD'
is going to be extended too so that the product is even better for
the user, more targeted, with better recommendations and
functionality that synchronises 4oD across devices. It's an
exciting proposition for us to take to the ad market. And of course
there's the imminent launch of YouView which is obviously going to
be good for 4oD.
KANJI: And the buzz in the industry is about
Social TV. Any comments on that?
MILTON: Yes, there's a lot going on here around
Social TV. Channel 4 is engaging more with social TV generally and
there is much discussion and development work, and some really
successful early trials, for the second-screen. From a VOD
perspective, we have the ability to share content on Facebook and
Twitter already and we plan to take the integration of social
functions on 4oD further - that will be one element of the product
KANJI: And final question: what's been your
proudest achievement at Channel 4?
MILTON: I feel generally proud of 4oD - of the
service we launched and have since evolved, of how well it has
performed and of how much we punch above our weight in terms of
views, commercial impact and innovations. But I guess I feel most
proud of my influence in defining the overall vision for 4oD -
particularly over the past 18 months or so that I have been Head of
VOD - and my role in steering a fantastic team of people, across
many departments in C4, towards achieving that vision. We have made
some difficult decisions about what to pursue, what to prioritise
and focus on over that period, and indeed what not to. The result
has been a constantly evolving and improving service and some
really exciting, successful product and platform launches. And
there's much more to come!