27 December 2007

Review of 2007

At the end of last year's review, the following prediction was made: "2007 looks set to be another exciting year". We weren't disappointed – over the last twelve months, the digital terrestrial platform has seen a wide range of changes, losses and additions. Some were predicted, but last year will be remembered for the surprises...

Ever since Five launched two digital channels on Freeview back in 2006, Top Up TV have been transforming their offering from a bouquet of time-sharing linear channels into the innovative Anytime service, which provides subscribers with a library of on-demand programming. This process continued apace throughout 2007, with the removal of Discovery Real Time, the Discovery Channel and Cartoon Network in February. TCM followed in April, and various other services saw changes to their broadcast hours to facilitate the carriage of new content providers Sci-Fi, the History Channel and Crime & Investigation (November).

In March, Setanta Sports launched their flagship channel on DTT. For the first time since the collapse of ITV Digital, subscribers could watch Premier League, SPL and top-flight European football through their aerial.

The Freeview line-up saw a raft of changes, too. Back in March, ITV Play was dramatically pulled off-air as the first of many scandals surrounding phone-in competitions came to light. Within days, ITV closed the network altogether, and ITV2+1 stepped in to take its place. It wasn't the only channel to be replaced by another from the same broadcaster. Channel 4+1 replaced Film4+1 in August. In October, both UKTV and Virgin Media Television recognised the value of having channels on Freeview and acted accordingly by improving their respective offerings on the platform. UKTV Bright Ideas was scrapped and replaced by a re-branded UKTV G2: Dave. FTN, meanwhile, was replaced by Virgin 1.

More surprising changes included the sudden closure of Disney's ABC1, which despite having a tiny selection of programmes had survived admirably for so long. Radio station 3C closed back in March, replaced "temporarily" by Clyde 1 (which is still here); Radio Music Shop closed back in October. Teachers' TV lost so many hours that it's now only on for 60 minutes a day.

Thomas Cook TV came... and went, having only lasted a few months. Nuts TV, Gems TV and The Jewellery Channel have all joined the line-up – and they look like staying, too. The BBC News Multiscreen grew, and now offers 4 video options.

The UK's digital switchover process finally began in October. By November, the town of Whitehaven and the surrounding area of Copeland in Cumbria, could no longer receive analogue terrestrial television channels. Residents became the first to experience analogue switch-off, and acted as guinea-pigs on behalf of the rest of us!

So far, 2007 sounds fairly similar to any other as far as digital terrestrial is concerned: some channels came, some channels went, switchover moved another step closer. But the year's biggest story hasn't been mentioned yet. Way back in February, Sky dropped a bombshell by announcing their intention to remove their channels from Freeview and launch a subscription service of their own ("Picnic"). Such a move, which requires the approval of Ofcom and has been the subject of a lengthy consultation process (which closed earlier this month), would transform DTT and the entire pay-TV market. It has been widely opposed, but until the outcome of the consultation (and another investigating the wider subscription-television market), the future of Sky's contribution to Freeview hangs in the balance.

So what's to come in 2008? The eagerly-anticipated outcome of Ofcom's consultations will have a massive impact on Freeview and subscription services, but unfortunately the conclusion is impossible to predict. We do know that broadcasters will continue to seek out ways of getting more content and services into our homes. The "big four" terrestrial companies are currently working on plans to get HD on Freeview, and on ways of delivering on-demand content. Inevitably, the line-up will continue to change, and the switchover process will face its first true test with the conversion of the entire Border region to digital. Exciting enough for you?

19 December 2007

2,400,000 Freeview boxes sold in 2007 Q3

Nearly 2.4 million Freeview receivers were sold in the three months between July and September, the second-highest sales figure on record. According to Ofcom’s quarterly digital television report, 9.3 million homes now use Freeview as their source of digital television. 85.1% of UK households now have digital television.

13 December 2007

BBC to consider reducing picture quality on DTT

The BBC are to consider broadcasting their services on Freeview at lower quality in order to facilitate the carriage of more. Other broadcasters, such as ITV and Channel 4 already employ similar techniques on their digital-only channels. The BBC’s capacity will be severely stretched if/when they are forced to carry public service channels such as S4C and Five after switchover.

Ofcom launch “digital dividend” auction

Media regulator Ofcom has launched the process of selling-off the radio spectrum freed up by the UK’s switch to digital television. As well as replacing analogue television signals, digital switchover also tidies up the frequencies being used for TV, creating blocks of spectrum which can be sold more easily. Possible uses include wireless communications, broadband, and possibly even moving pictures.

10 December 2007

BBC Worldwide consider buy-out of UKTV

BBC Worldwide, the independent commercial arm of the BBC, is considering taking complete control of the UKTV network by purchasing Virgin Media Television’s 50% share. The network is already half-owned by BBC Worldwide. It is thought that in the event of a complete take-over, UKTV would switch to a free-to-air/view model, with the possibility of channels moving to Freeview or leaving Top Up TV.

06 December 2007

Freeview to launch “catch-up” on-demand service

Freeview is to launch a “catch-up” service for Freeview Playback and PVR owners. The “push” on-demand service will act in exactly the same way as Top Up TV Anytime, sending pre-selected programming to user’s boxes for them to watch at their leisure. More details are set to be revealed in January. It is estimated that 225,000 Freeview Playback boxes have been sold since the launch of the brand in April.

02 December 2007

ITV News begins widescreen broadcasts

ITV News began broadcasting in widescreen yesterday evening. The channel’s news output had previously been produced in 4:3 but broadcast stretched and cropped into a pseudo-widescreen format on Freeview and other digital platforms. All local ITV news programmes, with the exception of Westcountry, have also switched to 16:9.

UKTV Gold begins widescreen testing

UKTV Gold tested broadcasting programming in widescreen on Friday evening in preparation for the network’s full roll-out of widescreen on all its channels from January 31. Currently, all UKTV channels are broadcast in 4:3, including UKTV History and Dave on Freeview. Virgin Media Television channels – including Virgin 1 and Living – are expected to begin broadcasting in widescreen from the same date.