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Startup inside the bureaucrat: the story of Yle Areena

Finland’s national streaming service Yle Areena is a phenomenal success story. It has beaten all commercial competition, as over 80% of all Finnish streaming users are watching shows on the service. How did it become such a success? This is the story behind Yle Areena.

The midsummer of 2007 was unusually hot in Finland. At the peak of the nightless summer, Finns drove off to their cottages to enjoy a long weekend and set up bonfires. Virtually everyone in Finland. The streets of Helsinki became so quiet it was hard to believe it was a city, not to mention the capital.

On the northern side of Helsinki, just beside the city's central train yard in the suburb of Pasila, stands the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Yle. The offices are reminiscent of Soviet style government buildings, with concrete facades and corridors so long that even regular staff have difficulties finding their way.

You wouldn’t normally come accross people here at night, not to mention in the midsummer. Yet, at four in the morning, one room has the lights on. Reijo Perälä is working the night shift with his team. Yle’s new streaming service, Yle Areena, had just been launched a week earlier at a very early development stage. The service was connected to all channels the company streamed in TV and radio, and was under a heavy load. It crashed all the time. The team had scheduled four-hour shifts to monitor the new service. If a problem was detected, the person on call should first cover it up, then try to fix it, and then call for help if it didn’t work.

But it was worth it, because Perälä’s team had a vision. They wanted to create an online archive of all the content the company had produced, available free of charge for everyone. The audiovisual history and presence of the 90-year-old nation. He knew this would be possible if they could only get past the technical difficulties. He just wished they hadn’t launched right before the summer holidays.

Reijo Perälä.
Reijo Perälä. Photographer: Jukka Lintinen / Yle Image service Reijo Perälä. reijo perälä

YouTube was founded in February 2005. That year marked the starting point for the world of video streaming. The volume of broadband connections had been doubling every year, and home connections were fast enough to stream video content at a decent speed. In 2005, the BBC also launched their own media player that could be used to watch some selected programmes from their archive. The company also had tried to open all of its archives for creative use but the project had failed because of copyright issues.

Arne Wessberg, the Managing Director of Yle at the time and Chairman of the Europen Broadcasting Union, was one of the first ones informed about the trials BBC had done. He asked Reijo Perälä, the head of the Yle Radio Suomi channel, to visit his office and discuss what it would take from Yle to start sharing their archives online. The conversation resulted in Wessberg offering Perälä the opportunity take the project.

Perälä jumped at the task. He had a PhD in history and was an expert in diving into the archives. The idea of was to share not just the content but also editorial stories behind the material. The work started with benchmarking other similar projects from national and commercial broadcasting companies. This was a new concept at the time, with only a few early trials made around the world with varying success. He also researched how Yle’s archives were organised at the moment, and what kind of copyrights were involved with the materials. The findings were encouraging. This was something that could work.

This is our top priority project, and we should launch this on Yle’s 80th birthday. What do you need to get this done?― Mikael Jungner

Meanwhile the management of the company had changed, as Mikael Jungner jumped on board for his five-year term. The new CEO was really excited, seeing the service as a crucial part of Yle’s future.

“This is our top priority project, and we should launch this on Yle’s 80th birthday. What do you need to get this done?”

Perälä already had the answer. He got to hand-pick anyone from inside Yle to his team. He started calling trusted people who he knew could make the deadline. The clock was ticking, so his team started working on the content as technical platform development was done at the same time. The curated archives collection, Elävä Arkisto, was launched as planned on 6 September 2006.

Perälä had worked with Jari Lahti on the Elävä Arkisto project, and they were also members of a broadband streaming committee, lead by Olli-Pekka Heinonen. The conclusion was that Yle could start broadcasting its programs online, and also make them available for a limited period of time after they were aired. Lahti and Perälä felt that this could be the future of the company. They also knew this would not be possible to create with the current company structure.

The team created a plan to restructure the development of new web services in the company. This plan would require a new unit with strong management support, better resources and recruiting of new talent outside of the company. Lahti took the plan to the head of strategy, Ismo Silvo, and then to the board. The new management of the company was thrilled about the initiative, and gave it their blessing. This was a perfect part of the plan to rebuild how Yle operates. Lahti became the director of the new unit, called Yle’s New services, and started recruiting people and ramp up the organisation. Perälä would continue on leading the team who worked on the content for both Elävä Arkisto, and the new streaming service.

Their target was to create a new web service that would take all programs available online. The initial idea was very simple. The service would become the biggest and most diverse selection of TV and radio shows online. If you missed a show on TV, you could watch it later online. Depending on the copyrights, some of the programmes would be in the service for a week, a month or a year.

Why don’t we call it Areena? Everyone is at the Areena. And it works in Swedish, too.

The name for the service was coined after a meeting where the team ruled out all name options. As they were finishing up and packing their stuff, producer Rita Landström stopped.

“Why don’t we call it Areena? Everyone is at the Areena. And it works in Swedish, too.”

The name was selected immediately. But there was no time to celebrate. It was time to work.

They recruited people working on the product and content. Jouni Siren was the expert of technology, Mirette Kangas lead the projects, Seija Aunila was the producer, Marja Honkakorpi lead the concept and Jenny Stenberg was responsible for the Swedish content.

Only after nine months from the previous product launch, Yle Areena opened on 15 June 2007. At the time of the launch, there were only 250 titles, most of them audio. The biggest challenge with publishing programmes was the copyrights. Only content without music could be launched in the beginning, so the shows were mainly news and talk shows. Drama and entertainment couldn’t be published because they had a lot of music, and some of the programmes even had to be clipped so that music was cut out. Moreover, the online store function for accessing more content had been cancelled a few weeks before the launch because of technical issues. Reijo Perälä still remembers the first summer very well.

“From a personal point of view, maybe it wasn’t wise to open during the midsummer with such an early stage product. But there was a great demand to get it online, so we did.”

Throughout the first summer, the service crashed multiple times a day. The team was on call around the clock in four hour shifts, to react and fix problems as they arose. Throughout these difficult times, Perälä says, their team never had a weak moment.

“There was no doubt it was going to be successful as long as we get the technical platform to handle the traffic. The world was moving this way.”

The team was on alert, so the service was never down for more than a few minutes. During the first six months, they had already scaled to 100,000 weekly viewers and the project was widely supported by the common audience. This was something that the digital society wanted, and new generations also felt that public money was used wisely.

Reijo Perälä.
Reijo Perälä. reijo perälä

Today, Yle Areena is the number one streaming service in Finland. According to a recent study conducted by Arkena, a total of 83% of all Finnish streaming service users regularly watch shows from the service. Commercial competition comes far behind, with local services Katsomo at 59% and Ruutu at 44%. Netflix has a share of 30%. On a weekly basis, Yle Areena reaches about 1.5 million unique visitors, and its programmes get over one million views per day. In a country of 5.4 million people, these numbers are phenomenal.

The basic concept has not changed at all, but it’s never ready. We are still on the same task.

Yle Areena is now available on all major mobile and smart TV platforms. The service is also partnering with a lot of events to stream them online on Areena, and has started producing content only for online distribution. It has also become common to premiere a show online and only show it later on TV.

Since the initial launch, the service has been rebuilt all over again two times, and a third round is under construction. Reijo Perälä is still working as the head of programmes for Elävä Arkisto and Yle Areena. He thinks their team has made a good effort.

Still, there is a lot of work to be done.

“The basic concept has not changed at all, but it’s never ready. We are still on the same task.”

Text: Petri Vilén, Photo: Jukka Lintinen

Yle Areena

Text updated on April 10th 15.35

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