The UK free-to-air platform is closing in on half a million homes, but Ofcom’s count paints a different picture of the market, and Freesat is still waiting for a surge in HD content. Julian Clover reports.
Since its launch in May 2008, Freesat has established itself as both an easy means to convert to digital television, and as a model to which international platforms aspire. Most recently TVP named Freesat as the template for its proposed service in Poland.
According to Freesat, 400,000 households have signed up for the pay once, no subscription proposition that boasts over 140 digital channels. Numbers are so often the barometer of success, so Ofcom’s assertion that the number of free-to-air households actually went down by 100,000 to 500,000 in the quarter to March is at odds with both Freesat’s stated position and common sense. Even with Sky’s modest churn one would expect that after ten years in the market many more would have hung onto their dishes in order to continue viewing the free channels.
What Freesat has been able to do is to wrap these channels up into a neat package, offering its own PVR functionality, and a free HD service. Three quarters of the Freesat boxes sold are said to be for the high definition format.
Freesat clearly doesn’t agree with the regulator’s findings: “The Ofcom free satellite penetration figures have fluctuated significantly in the last year. Freesat has achieved well over 400,000 sales since launching in May 2008, illustrating the popularity of the Freesat service and free satellite in general. We are confident we’ll see demand for Freesat continue and work closely with Ofcom to track this growth,” is the official line.
Freesat’s James Atkins says the BBC-ITV supported project has met all of its objectives and he’s pleased that despite the recession it has continued to add households. High definition, which very nearly failed to become a part of Freesat in the first place, is clearly a driver. This despite the presence of just one full-time HD channel in BBC HD. “We’re quite open in what we talk about, we’re always clear in saying that there are 140 channels and there is HD programming. One or two hours of HD content a night doesn’t sound a lot, but just think about how much viewing is done in the evening”. As a means to increase its HD output, Freesat recently worked with BET, adding a temporary channel during the broadcaster’s recent awards night.
Atkins tells me not to assume that the arrival of a full time HD service from ITV on the terrestrial Freeview means that it will be replicated on Freesat, where the commercial broadcaster currently runs a part-time channel. He says what was once a four-hour service from the BBC is now a nine-hour channel with both BBC and ITV expanding when key sporting events are available. “It is very clear that high definition is important to us and we will continue to work with all channels to increase our HD. Everything is moving towards HD and the only question is the speed at which it does that.”
Even so, ITV’s recent kite-flying over moving some of its multichannel services to pay must surely be making Atkins and his colleagues just a little bit nervous.