Analysis: How close are we to another Freeview channel reshuffle?

Earlier this month, Digital UK, custodians of the Freeview channel numbering system, reported that it had written to children's and news channel operators reminding them of one-year-old plans to move them to new slots beyond channel 120 once channel 65 has been allocated.

The move would allow for further channels to launch on Freeview without channels launching messily around children's and news services. The plans had been put on ice last autumn following an unsuccessful appeal by Sky News against the move, which would see the channel move from channel 82 to 133.

But how close are we to another Freeview channel reshuffle?

At the moment, just three more channel numbers (63, 64 and 65) need to be allocated to trigger another channel change. The "General Entertainment" section now runs until 62, thanks to the inclusion of Heart TV in Greater Manchester on Freeview channel 62. 

Is there enough spare capacity to add another few channels in order for channel 65 to be allocated? Absolutely. Arqiva has spare capacity on the "COM5" multiplex, including the capacity used by BBC Red Button 302 temporarily during the summer.

From November, local TV multiplex operator Comux will need up to two channel numbers for its new "City DTT" service, which will allow for up to two extra channels to transmit alongside the new local TV signal across many areas of the UK.

On the flip side, channel 48 is currently vacant following  Food Network's move to channel 41 last month. Subscription service Top Up TV is closing down, meaning that UKTV needs to replace the current pay TV content on channels 26 and 54 to keep those channel numbers going.  BT Sport Preview on channel 57 may become a casualty of new channel 5 Later, which looks set to take the bandwidth currently used for BT Sport's free-to-air promo channel for a new service on channel 55. The future of Marketplace on channel 50, which uses the Top Up TV bandwidth in the mornings is also unclear.

This could create a  "shuffle-up" of Freeview channels to fill gaps, but could lead to a longer wait until channel 65 is finally allocated, giving the children's and news channels a reprieve.

However, waiting in the wings is IPTV, in the form of multiplex operator Arqiva's Connect TV service. This new service has the potential to create a rush for Freeview channel numbers in the "General Entertainment" section. Connect TV allows broadcasters to stream their channels via the internet to compatible connected Freeview HD devices, thus allowing part-time Freeview channels to go full-time, by switching to the internet feed when their terrestrially delivered hours end and importantly doing this via their existing Freeview channel number.

All of a sudden, currently unused and unpopular off-peak slots on the Freeview service become very lucrative. A broadcaster can now theoretically choose to either run a completely 24/7 IPTV service via Connect TV and be allocated a channel number in the IPTV graveyard beyond channel 225, or it can go part IPTV/part terrestrial by arranging an hour or two of carriage via Freeview early in the morning, so it is allocated a more prominent channel number at the end of the "General Entertainment" section, and go internet-only via the same channel number the rest of the day. 

The cost of terrestrial carriage during off-peak hours would be offset by a better, lower channel number seen by more viewers, increasing ratings and encouraging advertisers to pay more for ad slots.

Taking all of the above into account, it can't be long before channel 65 is allocated, triggering a move of  children's and news channels.

Advantages of a reshuffle occurring soon
If this happened early in 2014, it would come just at the time when extra Freeview HD channels are being rolled out to around two-thirds of the UK population. On their way to the new children's and news channel numbers, Freeview HD device owners would have to browse past the new HD channels (located between 105-120) and any possible part IPTV/part terrestrially delivered channels at the end of the General Entertainment section, meaning that these new services would be discovered more quickly by viewers, which can only be in the broadcasters and multiplex operators best interests.

But there's one reshuffle unlikely to happen soon: It is clear from comments to a516digital and other social media websites that some viewers disagree with the notion of keeping shopping channels embedded among entertainment channels. But teleshopping providers and their lobbyists have ensured they don't get cleared out to a standalone section near the bottom of the EPG, as is the case on platforms such as Freesat, seeing off previous attempts to move their channels down the list, even having the matter raised in Parliament.

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