YouView, the project to bring internet-connected TV to the living room which is chaired by Lord Sugar, has removed its entire internal public relations and marketing team, but said its target to launch next spring would not be affected. The joint venture between BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, TalkTalk and Arqiva has pushed back its launch several times, faced a series of legal challenges and the launch of rival services in the connected TV market.
It has emerged that Sir Alan has uttered his dreaded Apprentice catchphrase to YouView's marketing, communications and research team, who leave at the end of the month. YouView said the changes "do not reflect a change to our business strategy and we remain on track to launch early next year". But removing a critical component to the launch has raised questions marks over the strategy, just months before it was supposed to unveil its first set-top box.
Dan Cryan, an analyst at IHS Screen Digest, said: "It is an odd time to remove the marketing team in the run-up to launch," although he added: "If they had not been getting results, maybe it is exactly the right time."
A YouView insider said user-testing and trials will start next month. But rivals question whether the company will be able to launch early next year.
According to sources, the first version of YouView will launch in the middle of next year. "It will be launched before the Olympics but there are currently fears it will be really expensive. A second version is expected to be out before the end of 2012 and that is what many companies not already involved will be looking at, when the price has come down," said one source.
YouView started life as Project Canvas in 2008 after a proposal by a BBC executive and the launch date was set at Christmas 2010. The service was immediately slowed by a series of regulatory inquiries including ones by the
BBC Trust, the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom. Richard Halton was appointed chief executive in September 2010 and the company dubbed itself the "next generation of Freeview". But it is understood there is friction between some of the partners, with some desperate to get a product on the shelves to as many as people as possible, while others want a more exclusive product.
Lord Sugar was appointed chairman in March to energise the operation. Charles Dunstone, chairman of venture partner TalkTalk, said at the time: "As we move from the development to the delivery stage, I can't think of anyone better placed to help bring YouView to market." It followed a testing time for the venture as it revealed technical difficulties meant it would not launch during the summer, and would not hit the shelves until 2012.
The speed to market has proven an issue as rivals have sprung up. Virgin launched its connected TiVo box fully earlier this year, and it has been snapped up by 5 per cent of its TV customers. A series of "smart TVs" have hit the market which are connected to the internet, and YouView also faces competition from Sky and Google. Mr Cryan said: "I fear its window of opportunity is closing. Its natural sell is Freeview homes that want iPlayer on their TV. Many other products including TVs and PlayStations now offer that. I worry that it no longer has a killer app."
Jeremy Darroch, the chief executive of BSkyB, said this month that YouView was an "opportunity and threat". He added: "The difficulty with YouView is actually getting to a reliable view of when it will arrive. It's obviously fallen back a fair bit and I've got a lot of sympathy with them because I know the difficulty of landing a TV platform at scale; it's not an easy job."
Yet Mr Halton believes that the hardest part of bringing the project to market is over. The appointment of Chris Bramley, formerly chief architect at BSkyB, as chief technology officer is a sign that the company has confidence in its strategy and will launch in the coming months, according to one insider. The source said that removing the four strong marketing team changed nothing and the venture was in good shape.