Freeview HD is launching to a receptive audience, but should the pay-TV platforms really be worried, asks Julian Clover?
In a few days time the first Freeview HD receivers will go on sale. Priced at around £130 they will deliver a bouquet of three HD channels, free-of-charge, to viewers in the North West and London. By the time of the World Cup the signal will be available to 50% of the UK.
By comparison Sky will let you have an HD receiver for free, providing you commit to pay an additional £10 a month for its 37 channels, while Virgin Media effectively charges an additional £5. The cablenet is growing its HD offer and can be expected to have been 20 and 30 HD channels by the end of 2010.
But we are comparing apples with oranges here. Freeview is pretty close to public service, after all only those channels with public service obligations were allowed to bid for the capacity in the first place, in a sort of ITV-style beauty contest only without the licence to print money.
In research released this week to the Broadcasting Press Guild, potential viewers were asked if they would be likely to get Freeview HD on their main set in the next six months. The answer was likely for
- Around one in five (18%) analogue homes
- Around one in five (18%) of Freeview homes and a quarter (23%) of Freeview+ homes
- Around one in five (17%) Sky+ HD homes
- 14% of Freesat HD homes and 38% of Freesat+ HD homes
- 12% of Virgin homes.
The most interesting stats are those belonging to current Freesat HD and Sky HD homes, the latter quickly extrapolated into 360,000 households. Given we have a situation in the UK where the PSBs pick and choose their public service obligations you currently need two boxes to receive the line-up of HD channels from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The BBC is available cross-platform, ITV is technically restricted to Freesat, while Channel 4 is on Virgin and Sky. Significantly, you don’t actually need a Sky subscription to view Channel 4 HD, just a card. (It is possible to add ITV HD to Sky through the Other Channels feature, but the process is hardly Granny-friendly)
Freeview HD changes that by offering the complete bouquet of HD channels with Five expected to add an HD offering before the end of the year. But is ITV HD really that powerful to make viewers pay £130 for a new box? The survey should also worry Freesat; if it is unable to add the complete PSB HD line-up then Freeview HD must surely be the likely beneficiary. Despite majoring on high definition in its marketing, Freesat still has just the one, full-time, channel in BBC HD.
Increasingly, Freeview’s growth has come about as the result of upgrades to the family television, and standard definition set-top boxes costing as little as £25. This has put the terrestrial platform into 18 million homes, including 10 million on the primary set, making it the most popular television service in the UK. But it should be remembered that Freeview grew digital TV penetration form 40% in 2002 to 65% in 2005, when boxes cost more, and IDTVs were few and far between.
Freeview HD will now be looking to see if it can pull it off a second time.