Foxtel’s idea of redefining TV is kicking out UI dev, adding Netflix

Foxtel has a self-proclaimed plan in place to “redefine” the TV experience as we know it, when in reality the Australian pay TV operator has been hammered by Netflix, which now has over 11 million subscribers in Australia spread across 4.2 million homes – a remarkable number in a country of 25 million people and 8.4 million total households.

Existing vendor supplier Arris (CommScope) is spearheading the operator’s optimistic revolution, delivering the full software stack for the latest iQ4 set top which the US vendor also developed. Foxtel’s latest hybrid device merges broadcast satellite with IP, equipped with a hefty 1TB hard drive and 4K support. So far so good. But, despite our best attempts, we couldn’t locate anything resembling a redefinition as promised by Foxtel, or indeed even a minor change to the viewing experience to set it apart from rival operators.

Are we missing something here? Faultline asked CommScope as much and a representative pointed us towards Foxtel’s “completely redesigned interface” with simplified discovery and navigation of 16,000 hours of on-demand content, plus personalized recommendations based on viewing history – all delivered via software updates over the coming months even to existing iQ4 and legacy iQ3 set tops. It also includes the introduction of a new Foxtel TV remote control with dedicated Netflix button. A little better but still lacking that special something.

Foxtel’s whole new UI has been designed to bring together a number of video formats (by which it means Netflix). CommScope told us the UX was built by Foxtel itself, with CommScope providing technical inputs and completing performance optimization, Netflix implementation and development of the full 4K capable set top software stack. Our contact continued that this includes the necessary integrations that the new UX requires to the CMS and recommendation engines, and necessary Netflix application integrations with the UI.

Foxtel and CommScope’s redefining of TV therefore appears to mark the end of Massive Interactive’s time at Foxtel, the UK firm behind the graphical UI on the iQ3 set top, as well as TiVo which historically provided recommendation software to the operator via its DigitalSmiths division.

Besides, Foxtel – jointly owned by Telstra and News Corp Australia – hardly has a track record of redefining TV. Its iQ3 set top was notoriously glitchy which meant the iQ4 involved a complete rebuild, although the only major difference between the two generations of set top was that the iQ4 came with 4K support.

Foxtel has been pushing the idea that its new iQ4 set top is an ideal environment for live sports, which can also be read as a strategy to reduce churn and pump up ARPU. It talks about a sports fan targeting feature called Team-Link, which provides automatic links to sports and team content. Initial customer response has been “overwhelming,” Foxtel claims.

Foxtel also flopped in OTT video. It was forced to can the Presto service back in early 2017 and fold this into the Foxtel Now package, which changed from Foxtel Play in December 2016 available to non-pay TV subscribers. Foxtel Now is also available via a dedicated Android TV device costing $99 upfront with built-in Chromecast. The operator has only sold some 4,000 Foxtel Now Box units so far, according to the eBay link provided on its official sales page. This was manufactured by Technicolor with UI and launcher built by Switch Media and running a Marvell Armada SoC.

To make matters more confusing, the legacy T-Box set tops, launched by parent Telstra back in 2010 and retired in late 2015, were made by French firm Netgem which has long since retreated from the hardware game. Sourcing video hardware from three separate suppliers – Arris, Technicolor and Netgem – has in hindsight probably not served Foxtel awfully well and has likely confused its subscriber base. Of course, avoiding vendor lock-in and having a scapegoat supplier is a common operator tactic.

Telstra finally pulled T-Box support last year and replaced it with the Telstra TV streaming device with the second version seeing the return of the TV tuner for accessing FTA channels.

Sports was not an experience highlighted or even mentioned in the latest press release, however, instead pointing towards accessing Netflix as a key feature along with Foxtel’s own catalog of on-demand titles. Foxtel is, if anything, a little late to the Netflix hugging party and most of the damage has already been done.