Could Freeview have become a victim of its own success? Julian Clover looks at why the free-to-air platform is not the only game on the UK DTT system
There is no questioning the success of digital terrestrial television in the UK. The Freeview brand has become synonymous with DTT and On Digital is now but a distant memory. Helped by heavy promotion from the BBC and set-top boxes on sale at often less than £30, over 70% of Britain is now ready for digital switchover.
The original DTT proposition was for a handful of free-to-air channels and a pay-TV platform. When ITV Digital collapsed, the BBC stepped in, and along with BSkyB and Crown Castle (later National Grid Wireless) established Freeview. The rest as they say is history; after all, nine million homes can’t be wrong. Channel 4 turned its pay channels into free-to-air networks and ITV, battered and bruised from the On Digital experience, also joined the Freeview consortium.
Other broadcasters hung onto Freeview’s coattails; strictly speaking they weren’t a part of Freeview, because they weren’t contributing anything to the marketing budget. But Freeview was happy to increase its line-up and welcome them into the fold on a kind of honorary basis.
But there is dissent in the ranks. First Top Up TV established a mini-pay platform that last December became the download service Top Up TV Anytime, the surviving ITV Digital boxes upgraded to digital video recorders. The key element of the Top Up TV package remains a linear channel, Setanta Sports, which has secured Premiership football rights from the start of the next season. This week Ofcom announced plans to bring Setanta’s conditional access services under much the same regime that Sky faces on its DTH platform.
Last week Sky announced its own plans to launch a DTT pay package – assuming Ofcom agrees and there are indications that the regulator is yet to receive a formal request – its three free channels becoming four pay channels. Last April Ofcom lifted the restrictions on Multiplexs B, C and D preventing them from carrying pay services.
It would be safe to assume that a Sky Sports channel, complete with four sixths of the available live Premiership matches, would be part of the proposition. Sky would also use an MPEG-4 transport stream, allowing it to broadcast the extra channel, though requiring its own set-top box inventory.
The departure of Sky News, Sky Sports News and Sky Three would presumably require Sky to hand in its Freeview membership card – an act that destroys my theory that Sky One would eventually take a place on a free DTT platform – though with content including Lost, 24 and the Hogfather who’s to say that it might not acquire premium status.