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?