22 December 2006

Review of 2006

The end of 2006 marks the end of another exciting year for Digital Terrestrial Television in the UK. Not only have we seen changes to the channels and services themselves, but also witnessed the creation of a definite switchover timetable. What once may have seemed like a flight of fantasy will soon become a reality: the first major area to switchover will see analogue signals turned off in just ten months; the first regions to switch only have to wait until 2008. The switch will (no doubt) be plagued with problems, but is unlikely to be disastrous. Over 70% of households now have access to digital, and this figure grows with every set-top box bought; the Government has announced financial aid will be in place to ensure no-one gets left behind.

A major contributor to the success of digital take-up is the continuing popularity of Freeview. This year saw the platform go from strength to strength (albeit at the expense of other factors) in terms of its channel line-up and appeal. Let’s look back at Freeview’s 2006:

Say hello, wave goodbye
The year began with a pretty bizarre tale: someone’s Freeview box managed not only to send a transmission signal, but also one on the exact-same frequency as the international distress signal! Coastguard helicopters were dispatched to trace the SOS call, only to find it had come from some poor Freeviewer’s front room… Despite being called a “one-off incident”, the same thing happened the next month in February!

Following the closure of the ITV News Channel in December 2005, ITV were able to launch the CITV Channel in March. The runaway success of the BBC’s children’s channels (CBeebies is one of the most-watched digital television channels) and ITV’s reluctance to show children’s programming on the struggling ITV1 led them to launching their own rival channel…

Advertising revenues have been falling almost continually on ITV1 since the launch of multi-channel television. To combat the loss of viewers on their flagship channel, ITV launched as many sister channels as possible: at least if people weren’t watching ITV1, they could still be watching ITV2. This tactic appeared to be working: it even prolonged the life of ITV’s Men & Motors channel (which had been expected to close with the launch of ITV4). Unfortunately, ITV’s coffers were still running low. After a hugely successful trial, they decided that a 24-hour quiz channel - ITV Play - was the way to claw back some cash. It replaced Men & Motors in April…

Rumours that a new channel might be using the space overnight that UKTV History has no use for were proved correct when trashy late-night television channel Smile TV appeared on April 26…

The new series of Big Brother in May saw an end to the broadcast of More4+1 on Freeview, in favour of a live stream from the house. This service was ended before the series finished, however: it was taken off-air in July to make way for the launch of Film4, which moved to Freeview on the 23rd. Channel 4 had announced the movie channel would become a free service in line with their ambition to be seen in as many homes as possible: they believe future revenues can be generated from on-demand content…

Also in July, the launch of Virgin Radio

The massacre of the existing Top Up TV line-up (more in a moment) was a result of Five taking back some of their channel slots from the pay-TV company. Five was lagging behind all the other terrestrial broadcasters, who each had at least 5 channels on Freeview (in comparison to Five’s 1), and needed to beef up its multi-channel presence. On October 15th and 16th, Five Life and Five US were launched…

BBC Parliament had only been broadcasting in quarter-screen 4:3 before November, when it became available in glorious widescreen, although at the expense of picture quality on it and the BBC’s interactive services…

Channel 4 started the Freeview quiz channel phenomenon with Quiz Call - but fortunately they saw sense and replaced it with Film4+1 this November. Cynics would tell you that Channel 4 were eager to get rid of Quiz Call because they feared upcoming legislation would cripple their channel’s ability to make tonnes of money, but whatever their motives it’s actions like this that have helped Freeview to become such an attractive proposition. Even FTN, who are notorious for showing rubbish shows and quiz programmes, are cutting the crap and launching a new half-decent schedule for 2007…

Higher up in the channel numbers, Teletext Games appeared and will launch fully next year, while December has seen the launch of 2 new radio stations, Heart (with regional variations, to boot) and the Radio Music Shop. The text service NHS Direct has also appeared on Sky Text page 800…

The revolution will be televised (and available on-demand)
The decision by Five to take back capacity from Top Up TV could well have sounded the death-knell for the subscription television operator. Instead, they have capitalised on the fact that the unattractive overnight capacity on Freeview could be used to their advantage. By broadcasting content overnight to be recorded on to their new Anytime set-top boxes, Top Up TV have not only survived the change, but deserve to prosper from it. The channel line-up they currently show “live” is - make no mistake - poor: but their new service, especially when combined with Setanta Sports next year, is an exciting addition to DTT.

This year, DTT said goodbye to the live versions of Bloomberg, Boomerang, Toonami, Red Hot and UKTV Food: the hours of the remaining channels was severely reduced. Next year will most likely see further reductions to allow a 24-hour Setanta Sports channel to launch, bringing Premiership football to DTT for the first time since the collapse of ONdigital: by then the lure of Top Up TV Anytime should be attractive enough to see the company succeed.

The number of DTT-plus-broadband services looks only to increase over the coming years. BT fired the opening salvo with the launch of BT Vision: the content looks good, although as with all new developments, concerns over the technology still remain.

2007 and beyond
Switchover begins
2007 looks set to be another exciting year. As people grow increasingly familiar with Freeview (and new digital technologies in general) the opportunities for combining DTT with new services (such as BT Vision or Anytime PVRs) looks set to grow. Switchover will force DTT on to some households, but provided there remains a commitment to keeping the platform alive with quality services - a commitment that will be driven and policed by public demand - the UK looks fairly well set to embrace the digital switchover.

20 December 2006

DTT receivers still flying off the shelves

The latest figures from Ofcom show that 1.4 million DTT set-top boxes and IDTVs were sold between July and September this year. The number of homes with Freeview now stands at just over 7 million (compared to the 6.4 million homes without any form of digital television): 73.3% of the population now have digital telly.

19 December 2006

Switchover help to cost £600 million

The Government will spend £600 million on providing assistance to the elderly, disabled and disadvantaged with digital switchover. Those who receive income-related benefits will have the cost of converting one television set to digital television paid for them; those who do not will only have to pay £40 for the same privilege. The money will come from the television licence fee.

15 December 2006

Heart begins broadcasting on Freeview

Heart has commenced broadcasts on Freeview channel 728 in England and Wales. The service is regionalised: listeners will hear either the London, West Midlands or East Midlands feed of the radio network, depending on their location in the country.

NHS Direct to launch on Sky Text

NHS Direct - the health information text service that has been promising to launch on Freeview since the dawn of time - will be launching on Sky Text. Tuning to channel 108 and pressing the blue button (or going to Sky Text page 800 or 802) currently displays a “coming soon” message.

12 December 2006

Report: Flextech could drop subscriptions

A feud between Sky and Flextech over subscription revenue could see Flextech channels go free-to-air. The channels - including Living, Bravo and FTN - are currently only available with a basic Sky subscription on satellite. A move onto Freeview for the channels could be feasible: Flextech have a 75% stake in the stream used for FTN and UKTV Bright Ideas; rumours suggest that FTN could even be re-branded to become the company’s flagship channel.

11 December 2006

BBC to trial own “on-demand” service

Following the launch of Top Up TV Anytime, the BBC is to launch a trial of its own on-demand service, BBC+, in London. The 3-month trial will see 300 householders equipped with a PVR which automatically records 50 hours of BBC content each week, and that has capacity for 50 hours of personal recordings.

08 December 2006

Radio Music Shop launches on Freeview

Radio Music Shop has launched on Freeview channel 729 (and Sky Digital channel 0208) today. The station plays a wide range of music, all of which is available to purchase by calling 0906 6800081.

07 December 2006

Ofcom reveal post-switchover figures

Media regulator Ofcom has confirmed that 98.5% of households will have access to the Public Service Broadcast multiplexes (1, 2 and B) after digital switchover. This figure matches the proportion of the country that currently has access to analogue terrestrial television. Commercial multiplexes A, C and D will be available to at least 90% of households; improving this last figure is the responsibility of the multiplex owners who would have to apply for additional transmission sites.

FTN to drop Quiz Call - for programmes!

FTN looks to be attempting to shake off its reputation as one of the weakest Freeview channels with a new schedule from the beginning of next year. Several popular shows from its sister channels - including The L Word, Bullseye and The Crystal Maze - will be replacing quiz and travel shop programming.

04 December 2006

BT Vision launched

BT have officially launched their BT Vision Freeview-plus-broadband offering. The service provides on-demand content, delivered via your broadband connection, alongside the standard Freeview line-up. Initially, the service is only available to BT Total Broadband subscribers (as the BT Home Hub is required), although new customers can choose to subscribe to Total Broadband at the same time to take advantage of the special installation offers.

In other news, Teletext Cars is now a regional service, only featuring cars available in your region. As a result, it now uses less bandwidth, most likely paving the way for the launch of Teletext Games. The “Noggin” children’s block on TMF is now known as Nick Jr., and simulcasts the channel’s morning programmes.