The BBC and ITV are establishing a FTA satellite platform, but what’s wrong with market forces, asks Julian Clover?
Finally Freesat is on the agenda for UK satellite viewers, that’s those who haven’t already settled for either Freesat from Sky or have a card lying around from a lapsed Sky subscription. Ofcom’s latest estimates suggest there to be around 815,000 free-to-air digital satellite households. Sky has kept its powder dry on the new arrival, though has expressed concern at what it sees as the implication that it might suddenly close the service, which is unlikely given that as long as viewers have a card they might upgrade to pay-TV.
Freesat partners BBC and ITV now have do their best to ensure that both Five and Channel 4 are on board – the two commercial broadcasters are currently bound by encryption contracts with Sky that may well expire by the time Freesat launches in 2008 – and given that the package is being marketed as a replacement for DTT in poor reception areas, any suggestion that viewers can turn to satellite for two of the big five networks won’t go down particularly well.
Freesat, which will be kept at arm’s length from Freeview, will also have to individually approach each of the 200 or so free-to-air channels to confirm their willingness to participate in the cardless venture.
It feels strange that in a market driven economy such as the UK, two public service broadcasters have to establish something like Freesat in the first place. Across Europe the market has largely established Freesat equivalents without the aid of state intervention, and in France where there may have been a nudge from the state, the channels will be encrypted.
Germany is probably the best example of where a free-to-air satellite package has evolved to carry all of the country’s leading public and private broadcasters. On the same Astra satellite at 19 degrees East there are now plans for a Polish Freesat style package, in this case established by public broadcaster TVP, while its commercial rivals use the nearby Eutelsat Hotbird neighbourhood. The Dutch Canal Digitaal has nine channels on its ‘Set-top box Pakkett’ and markets many of the free-to-air channels that populate the satellite – including the free-to-air regional broadcasters.
Canal Digital in Scandinavia has local packages, although the long running dispute with Viasat means that the popular TV3 channels are absent.
The UK’s Freesat will take another year before it makes it to air. It will make a welcome addition to the satellite tapestry, but you can’t help thinking that it could have all happened a little sooner, or maybe it has.