x360a Talks the Sky & 360 Agreement With Microsoft and Sky Top Dogs

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By now you've probably read or even heard about the Sky Player coming to Xbox 360's across the UK and Ireland this autumn. If you haven't, where the hell have you been for the last few days? Well yesterday, after the dust had settled and Georgie Thompson had left the venue (seriously, she's quite distracting!), we got chance to sit down with Jerry Johnson, the General Manager of Xbox Live in Europe, and Adrian Pilkington, the Director of 3rd Party Channels at BSkyB and talk about the partnership.

x360a: So how long has this deal been in the making?

Jerry Johnson: The deals and discussions have been going on for over 18 months now. We’ve been planning and working on this thing from an implementation standpoint since before NXE shifted last year. It isn’t something brand new.

Would you say that the Sky Player on the 360 is the start of some bigger, more wide-scale operation? Can we expect the service to expand over time?

JJ: I look at it as a long term type of relationship, the launch is just the first step. Similar in the way, if you look at Live since the 360 has launched, the continual progression of everything from identity to profiles, to avatars, to the interface; you’re going to continue to see ... we’re not sitting back and saying, “let’s launch, sit back and forget it and move on.”

Adrian Pilkington: From Sky’s point-of-view, we’re putting a huge amount of effort into increasing and developing a range of content we have on Sky Player that we want to bring to the Xbox as well. So yeah, this is just the start.

Will the services mirror one another? The Sky Player on PC’s compared to the service on the 360 ...

AP: We would like them to be similar and we’d like the Sky Player brand on PC and the Sky Player service on the Xbox to be similar to that. But I’m not saying they’re going to be identical.

But I presume there is the room for expansion? More channels over time? Is that part of the plan?

AP: Oh absolutely.

So Netflix has been a renowned success in the US, are you hoping for a similar impact with the partnership with one another in the UK?

JJ: From an Xbox perspective, I’ve got higher hopes. You know we actually made the commitment to setup a development team over here that is really focussed. We’re putting effort over here into actually developing the experiences that are tailored to the UK market. The type of experiences that we’re bring to Xbox, we consider them to be ground-breaking. This is the place we’re going to lead with interactive sports. This is the place we’re going to lead with live streaming content to your Xbox. It’s going to be led in the UK and I believe that when you take a look at the strength, breadth and depth of content that Sky has, both on demand and linear streamed content, I think that the offering that we have here will be much more compelling than anything else globally.

AP: I’d agree. I see no reason why a wider selection and choice of content that we possibly get with another deal, it should make it even more of an exciting customer proposition.

So, we understand it’s all streaming ... no downloadable content. What about future plans, does it include downloadable?

JJ: Right now we’re really focussed on this on-demand streaming. This, “how can I turn on my Xbox, pick out what I want, and start streaming right away.”

How will that work with people who may not have a decent enough broadband connection? Whether stable or speed wise?

JJ: Right now for Sky Player, the minimum requirement is a 1 megabit connection, ideally the recommendation is 2 megabits. This service will work very similar to the way Netflix works in the US, which isn’t a downloadable service. It’s a streaming only service and that service over there right now ... well, that press release that went out about 4 months after reported over 1 million subscribers, out of the gate, 1 billion and a half hours streamed over the first four or five months. There isn’t a barrier right now to that market and if you start to take a look at broadband penetration, the UK is on par with the US, so we expect it to be not a big barrier to people being able to consume this content via streaming.

Who would you say the target audience was for this service? Is it more of a choice for existing customers or are you trying to broaden both companies’ reach?

AP: I think it’s absolutely both. As you know there’s a huge install base with connected customers with Xbox. We’ve done our research, we know what the overlaps are with the Xbox base and the Sky subscription base, and you know, we feel we can bring a significant amount of additional sort of utility and choice of flexibility to those customers ... but as well as that, we have the opportunity for allowing people who haven’t got a Sky base for one reason or another, maybe they don’t want a dish on the side of their house, or whatever their reasons, to be able to reappraise the opportunity for taking up a Sky subscription. So it is very much a bit of both.

I think I’d probably stress though, that you know, there is an enormous sort of ... not cross over, but almost a similarity in terms of relationships, in terms of households, so it’s very exciting about what you can do with the content additionally with the power of the Xbox.

Are there any plans for any sort of high definition content, or can we just expect to see the standard definition stuff?

AP: It’s all standard definition at the moment and we’ll see how it goes I think. We’re always looking to see about incurring rates and bandwidth and how that works out.

Are there any deals in the offing to do with sports channels like Setanta because there is that target audience in the UK who don’t have Sky, but have an Xbox and are big football fans?

AP: You know, I don’t think we can talk about content deals, all I can say is we’re looking to bring a great package together at the moment.

Are there any plans outside of the UK?

JJ: I think today, we’re really focussed on the UK and we’re really proud of the partnership that we’ve got going on right now and the ability to be here locally, and talk more in-depth about the experiences that we’re bringing here. Right now, my team is very focussed on shipping an experience to the UK this autumn.

The avatar integration seems to be stepped up, particularly for the sporting events, can you tell us a bit more about that?

JJ: Well avatars are part of the platform now and they’re part of NXE. I think you’re going to see more and more of that throughout the year, we released it as a platform feature that games can integrate with and we’re starting to see some games, Kingdom of Keflings, Scene It?, and there’s some other ones that did it right out of the gate. Throughout this year, and into the holidays, I think you’re going to see more and more integration.

Will that work across any genre of program?

JJ: We’re working closely with the creative teams and where we really want to focus this effort. The great thing about sports is that sports are something very social in nature. It’s something that people interact with. They talk, they interact, you joke with your friends, friendly wagering; whatever it is, there is a lot of interaction that goes on over sports and we think that with combining with great Premiership action, cricket, rugby, all the different things that Sky Sports brings to the table, together with this interactivity ... the social aspects that Xbox Live brings with the console, we think that we’re really on to something . We will be leaders with this experience.

What other sort of features will the service offer? Maybe something that’s exclusive to the Xbox Sky Player?

JJ: I think that there’s already a lot of interactive TV that goes on with, I mean, if you look at it right now with the Sky set top boxes. Continuing to evaluate how you can actually work that into something’s that an Xbox interface, that takes advantage of the power of the console, again, the ability to drive things that are more community based ... things like predictive play, so that if I’m watching a match and I’ve got 7 of my friends together ... we could start to do things like, “what would be the final score?”, “who’ll be the next to score?” ... those types of things that actually drive interaction. Just like you’d do when you were sitting on a stool in a pub watching a game. Well, how can you do this when you’re not in the same place? So that you don’t have to be on your phone texting somebody while you’re watching the match ... but actually, you’ve got your headset on and you’re talking to them, interacting with them. It’s almost like building an interactive game ... a true interactive game around that entertainment.

So you’re not talking much about the specifics regarding subscriptions at the moment. Are we likely to see a whole array of packages though that cover the pay-per-view stuff, right the way through to the whole package?

AA: We’re not releasing those just yet, but I think perhaps what you can take a leaf from is where we currently are with Sky Player. It’s really quite straightforward and quite simple about the setup. For DTH, Sky Player mirrors your rights and entitlements across them, but that’s not something we’re really announcing yet.
Sky Player on the Xbox 360 and Ireland will be heading to Xboxes this coming autumn. For more information on how the Sky Player works on the PC and what sort of channels you’re getting, take a look at the Sky Player homepage here. For our opinions on the service and what it offers, take a look at our feature here.


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