New Media

The watchdogs have begun to bark
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The Independent Online

WITH THE BBC referring to theInternet as the third medium, and millions of £being ploughed intocyberspace every day, regulatory bodies have started to get just a littletwitchy about not being able to control a damn thing about it.

WITH THE BBC referring to theInternet as the third medium, and millions of £being ploughed intocyberspace every day, regulatory bodies have started to get just a littletwitchy about not being able to control a damn thing about it.

It must besaid that controlling the Internet must be about as easy as controlling aheadless chicken on acid. But rules are rules and regulation, in someform at least, can only be a positive move for consumer protection.

The Advertising Standards Authority has already started looking into onlineadvertising issues and now it seems that the Independent Television Commissionand the Broadcasting Standards Council could be the next regulatory bodies todevelop an Internet policy and issue guidelines. The two have got together tolook at possible ways in which they can regulate the medium, kicking off witha 200-person Citizen's Forum, held in Birmingham earlier thismonth, to gauge consumer concerns.

As is usually the case, it willtake months for these findings to reach the public domain, but you can restassured that it will take much longer for any kind of policy statement to beissued and then implemented.

As a consumer, I welcome these moves.Anything that protects me from in-your-face Internet advertising andmarketing, as I casually take in my daily dose of online media, has to bea a good thing. But it is unlikely that either the ITC or the BSC will seethis as their remit, leaving it up to individual service providers, orperhaps even the recently appointed "digital tsar", Alex Allan.

What will the ITC focus its regulatory gaze on? Peter Rogers, ITCchief executive, says they are looking at controlling Internet content in thesame way as they control television content.

Clearly, the boundariesbetween editorial content and the domain of the advertisers on the Net are apolitical minefield, the crossover is so intrinsically blurred that somewebsites tend to be barely more than thinly veiled advertorials.

The ITCis right to be cautious about its approach to extending its remit to theInternet, particularly since the current Broadcasting Act, ratifiedbefore the Internet went ballistic, deems that the ITC has a statutoryresponsibility for regulating moving pictures. With this in mind, thecommission is going to have to look at the growing number of websites that streamvideo - from those with webcast concerts, video and news footage to sitesthat carry 24-hour video banners and those planning to make the most of BTrolling out high-speed ADSL access by launching video-on-demandservices.

I recently heard talk of a film producer who is making afeature-length movie that will only ever be distributed on the Internet.However, with the cable companies planning to offer Internet access via cablemodems, he may feel cheated when he realises that people will also be able towatch his film on their television sets.

So, as the World Wide Webbecomes a broadcast medium, could the ITC start to apply the same rules as itdoes with TV? If so, it would be detrimental to the fledgeling Internetindustry for the commission to restrict online advertising to just 12 minutes perhour, which is its allowed quota on television, but inevitably it willlook at product placement within online video footage, and may even introducea watershed whereby certain content can be viewed only after certain times.Bad news for the porn sites and office perverts. The concept of a watershedraises interesting issues for advertisers; for instance, it may preventan ad for FHM, complete with bouncing boobs, from being"screened" before 9pm.

Of course, this is allpie-in-the-sky stuff, and heaven forbid that anyone is going totake the fun out of going online to find the latest banned video clip or watch asex show during the day from your work PC (I speak not from direct experiencebut from seeing blushing and sniggering men gather round acomputer).

However, if the Internet is to be taken seriously as acommercial broadcast medium, it undoubtedly has to be subject to some form ofregulation. The latest estimates are that there will be 15 million people inthe UK using the Internet by the end of this year, £60m will have beenspent by advertisers this year and a whopping £2bn worth of business willhave been conducted over it.

I'm all in favour of growing themedium, offering consumer reassurances where necessary and providing sensibleguidelines. But let's not spoil the party.

Spoilt forchoice

London will soon be awash with obscure adverts for something calledHomechoice, which encourages people to take control of their TVs. In caseyou don't live anywhere near London, don't worry, Homechoice iscoming to a hoarding near you soon, or just as soon as BT can roll outADSL. Homechoice, the consumer-friendly name of VideoNet, is thefirst non-trial video-on-demand service in the UK and has spent yearstrying to perfect its service and focus on what consumers will really want.As well as VOD, Homechoice is planning to offer a raft of interactiveservices and, eventually, when BT is allowed to screen broadcast signalsdown its copper pipe in 2001, normal TV transmission.

But with so manyother similar services (pay-per-view on cable and satellite)already on the market, will a stand-alone VOD service be able to findenough customers to justify its existence? Certainly, it would bewonderful to have the ability to choose a programme, then stop,rewind, fast forward and watch it again, but VideoNet may find itdifficult to compete on the high street where both SkyDigital and ONdigital havesewn up distribution points and cable operators have already direct-mailedall households within their franchise areas.

Given that around 24 per centof the UK is already subscribing to some form of pay-per-view TV,VideoNet is going to find it a tall order to convince these people that they needan additional set-top box with an additional monthly subscription. Priceswill range from £6.99 per month for basic rental and up to pounds3.49 for each film bought for 24 hours, but before you can do anythingyou have pay £40 to have the set-top box installed.

The thingthat gets me about VideoNet is that it is not doing a very good job of targetingits anticipated subscriber base. It is hoping to appeal to the ABC1 socialgroups, but has yet to include a URL in its advertising, only a phonenumber "for more information". Surely an oversight? Particularlywhen the Internet audience is predominantly made up of ABC1 types and London,out of all the regions, has the highest penetration of Internet usage.

The good news is that it had the foresight to register thehomechoice.co.uk domain, but the bad news is that there is absolutelyzilch on the site at the moment. Time to pull out all the stops and get atransactional site up and running, perhaps?

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