From a blank screen to being in hundreds of thousands of homes in a year, YouView is a catch-up TV phenomenon, as proud legal boss Toni Vitale is keen to emphasise
He might have to compete with Lord Alan Sugar, but Toni Vitale is a smashing brand ambassador for YouView, the subscription-free catch-up service that gives you iPlayer-like access to the past seven days’ broadcasting on your TV. The business is storming ahead, and the head of legal and company secretary is not shy of saying so.
“We’re a growing brand,” Vitale insisted, speaking earlier this year after his move from Virgin Media. “Some 12 months ago we weren’t even formed. Now we’re in hundreds of thousands of homes. If you want to work for a successful company, we’re the brand to tie yourself to.”
In May YouView announced that it had more than 2.2 million video-on-demand plays a week and was on its way to reaching 400,000 homes only eight months after launch.
But that launch was not plain sailing. It was delayed from late 2010 to July 2012, with Lord Sugar brought on board to fly the flag as non-executive chairman from early 2011. His exit in March was reportedly over a falling-out with Richard Desmond, boss of stakeholder Channel 5.
“It’s extremely successful,” Vitale now boasts. “If you look back to the launch, a lot of the press turned up almost hoping they could spin a negative story. It was late, but everyone was impressed by the product. It’s won awards in Stuff and T3 magazines – it’s seen as the future of TV.”
YouView’s beginnings verged on the dangerously complex. It was conceived as a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and Arqiva, and finalising the shareholder agreement meant mass conference calls, with 20-plus lawyers dialling in, orchestrated by CEO Richard Halton, with Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) corporate head Andrew Blankfield leading for the septet.
The starting point was the so-called ‘fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms’ obligation for standard-setting, or ‘Frand’, which ensured that all parties felt protected.
“I’m not just complying with company law – it’s part of the DNA of the company,” says Vitale.
Head of legal back then was John Davidson-Kelly, who left in November to become a digital business partner at Osborne Clarke’s (OC) London office – where most of them just call him JDK. He saw the launch through from the days when it was called Project Canvas. JDK’s exit ushered in Vitale, formerly assistant general counsel at Virgin Media, where he had been since 2009. He joined YouView in January.
Vitale trained at Rubinstein Callingham Polden & Gale, now Manches, and took solicitor roles at firms including Lewis Silkin. There he worked with Stephen Groom, now OC marketing and privacy partner, a figure he picks out as a key mentor alongside ex-Fujitsu UK and Ireland general counsel Jonathan Smith, with whom Vitale worked at the Japanese IT group in-between partnership at Clyde & Co and a senior counsel role at IBM, his last stop before Virgin Media.
Like his erstwhile Virgin Media boss Scott Dresser, who left the general counsel role last year, Vitale plans to make his mark by setting up an adviser panel for the first time by the autumn. YouView’s main relationships are with Charles Russell partner Paul Stone for competition law, Bristows partner Paul Walsh for trade marks and general litigation, and Travers Smith’s Richard Brown for IP and technology matters, with a retainer also out to FFW. Vitale is inviting around 12 firms, including some of the incumbents, to a panel pitch, with Olswang, Reed Smith and Simmons & Simmons among those to receive requests for tender in recent weeks. Aside from the firms that do the bulk of YouView’s external work there are historic relationships with OC and Olswang, with the latter advising on aspects of the joint venture’s creation.
“We’ve got a year of launching new products ahead of us,” he says, citing one of the main reasons why outside advice will be needed.
Meanwhile, deals with manufacturers provide a key chunk of the legal work, Vitale adds.
“I’m going to try to keep the list small,” he says of the anticipated roster, which will focus on a small number of advisers in contrast to the status quo. “I don’t expect the budget to go down but I do expect to get more value from firms by concentrating it. It’s likely there’ll be one or two firms. The way my predecessor arranged the external legal resources was to bring in specialists in different areas. My view is that it’s possible to get a closer working relationship if you have one or two firms.
“I’ll keep the panel going for two years,” Vitale adds. “Maybe the first time, we’ll do it year by year.”
He says the shareholders are “delighted” by YouView’s upward spiral (“To go from zero to hundreds of thousands of boxes in that time is a huge success”), with BT Sport’s high-profile public launch earlier this year featuring the service as part of its offering.
And YouView is a business going through change. It recently made the majority of its staff permanent after previously employing them on a contract basis. Only around 20 per cent are now hired in the old way.
This meant some employment law work for the in-house team, which contains Vitale and one lawyer reporting to him as well as a secondee from Bristows.
With a large number of product launches expected, not to mention the fallout from recent ones such as the Android app, Vitale, his team and his external advisers have plenty to keep them switched on.
Toni Vitale, YouView TV
Position: Head of legal and company secretary
Reports to: CFO David Dorans
Legal capacity: Three (including one secondee)
Main external law firms: Bristows, Charles Russell, Travers Smith, Field Fisher Waterhouse
Anuj Desai, head of legal and business affairs, blinkbox
I joined blinkbox in February as the company’s first in-house counsel. My role predominantly involves deals to acquire content from film and TV studios/distributors, but being part of a fast-paced and expanding company means that I’ve also got involved in many other areas of the business – particularly PR and marketing.
Our key business challenge remains the competitive and crowded marketplace in which we are playing. The established household names are highly active in their marketing and there are also many new entrants to the online video space, ranging from mobile operators to electrical retailers to pizza delivery companies.
To prosper in such a challenging environment we need to get our message out there in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and try to differentiate our offering where we can. To this end, we are in the great position of being able to leverage Tesco’s position and extensive experience in the physical entertainment market to assist us.
One example of this is the ‘Buy Physical Get Digital’ scheme, whereby Tesco DVD purchasers can also get a digital copy of the same film from blinkbox. This has involved acquiring additional rights and working closely with our content suppliers from a marketing perspective.
From a legal point of view, the challenge is staying on top of know-how in a rapidly evolving arena. With new devices come new digital rights and forms of exploitation, so keeping up-to-date with the tech news is a job in itself.