31 December 2008

Review of 2008

It's been another busy year reporting on the comings and goings, trials and tribulations, controversies and celebrations which have transformed digital terrestrial television. The new year will bring further changes, and the future of the platform looks bright. But let's not forget some of the news stories from 2008 which have helped to push Freeview to the fore of Britain's digital revolution.

The year started with some sad news: radio station Oneword arguably became the first casualty of the "credit crunch" when it's owners simply couldn't afford to keep broadcasting, and who any potential buyers steered well clear of. The station ceased broadcasting just two weeks into the new year, leaving the future of DAB looking slightly shaky, too. It wasn't long before some positive news came through, though: UKTV began broadcasting in widescreen, while Top Up TV launched their new 250GB Anytime box (and announced a content deal with Disney).

Viewers in Wales lost the CITV channel in February when the children's channel was moved into ABC1's old slot to allow for 24/7 broadcasts of ITV4. S4C countered the move by announcing their intentions to launch a kids channel of their own... and asked to be gifted some capacity in order to do so! Elsewhere, Ofcom's plans to squeeze HD channels onto DTT are met with criticism from the DTG.

Bloomberg left Top Up TV in March, fuelling rumours that it might finally launch on Freeview (it never did), while National Lottery Xtra came to Freeview (but only for an hour each morning). Further wrangling over plans to launch HD channels surfaced, but Ofcom stood it's ground and even announced plans to improve coverage of commercial multiplexes C and D to the UK population – 87.6% of which now had some form of digital TV.

Various reviews of the Switchover programme all came to roughly the same conclusion: that it had been a success. Ofcom's response was to speed-up the process by halving the "limbo" period between analogue and all-digital services in future switches. In other news, Five Life was replaced by Fiver, Sky said they would consider launching their controversial Picnic service on IPTV (via broadband), and Ofcom officially launched their HD-DTT plans.

Ofcom postpone a ruling on Sky Picnic; Rabbit launches and The Jewelery Channel leaves.

Transmission changes leave around 1% of Freeview receivers useless because they are incompatible with the new specifications. Birmingham and the Midlands are the first region affected by the national roll-out of the network enhancements, which only affects boxes that did not adhere to Freeview specifications because they were manufactured before these were finalised. Discovery revamp their presence on Top Up TV, and are joined by Warner Bros content; Setanta extends weekend broadcasting hours; and Virgin 1 went widescreen.

Freeview Playback is re-branded as Freeview+ to jump on the Sky+ bandwagon. Gems TV launch a second channel on Freeview as, due to technical constraints, they can't broadcast on the same channel number from two separate slots on two different multiplexes. Ofcom announce switchover dates for the West and Westcountry. ITV begin advertising a tenth stream on multiplex A. Ofcom advertise two HD slots for Freeview.

Broadcasts of BBC Parliament are suspended on Freeview to allow for the launch of an enhanced BBC Sport interactive service. Thanks to Parliament's recess, Freeviewers can choose between three extra video streams of Olympics coverage using the new service. Elsewhere, the BBC World Service joins other BBC services on multiplex B; it emerges that 250,000 people had to buy new receivers following the launch of new transmission standards; ITV and Channel 4 submit their proposals for broadcasting in HD on Freeview; The Hits is replaced by 4Music; and Sky Three becomes Sky 3.

BT Vision launch HD on-demand content... and at the other end of the scale, Smile TV 2 launches a sub-standard-definition service on multiplex A. Ofcom and Sky get into a war of words over Picnic, which Sky decides to shelve... days before Ofcom provisionally approves the plans! Sony launch their Freeview add-on for the PlayStation 3, the Play TV.

The stakeholders in Freeview are finding it increasingly difficult to agree on decisions, according to reports. Sky is generally thought to be the "bad apple" of the bunch. Five add content to BT Vision; another Freeview slot is advertised on multiplex C or D, which is quickly snapped up by Discovery for a brand new channel. Eurosport and Clyde 1 cease broadcasting on DTT, and CNN announce they will be replacing Nuts TV in the new year. Ofcom finally announce plans for local DTT multiplexes.

Switchover proper begins and ends in the eastern Border region. Mojo Radio ceases broadcasting, and Orange officially scrap plans to launch an IPTV service to rival BT Vision. Five consider launching a kids channel, and Freeview consider the need to have an EPG shuffle.

A huge number of changes to Freeview in January are announced: DirectGov, Discovery's new channel "Quest", CNN, NetPlay and upto three more new services will be joining the platform. Price Drop and Nuts TV will both be leaving. The credit crunch has already snuffed out plans for new radio station Closer to launch, and could claim Ideal World as another victim.