Battle to claim BBC Three Freeview slot underway
Since the BBC first announced its proposals for BBC Three, local TV operators have been eyeing up the opportunity to move to a single channel number for the whole of the UK on Freeview.
Currently, local TV stations appear on channel 8 in England and Northern Ireland and on channel 23 in Wales and Scotland, where STV currently operates two local services.
Last week, The Guardian reported STV boss Rob Woodward as saying "It would make sense to have all the [local TV stations] across the UK on the same Freeview slot. BBC3 vacating its slot is the catalyst."
He accused the BBC of wanting to swap one channel with another.
The BBC's Market Impact Assessment, published in January as part of the BBC's original proposals regarding BBC One+1 and BBC Three stated it expected BBC One+1, if it had been given approval to launch, to appear lower down the EPG than BBC Three is currently.
The Assessment made the assumption that BBC One+1 would launch on channel 23, and that local TV services in Scotland and Northern Ireland would move from channel 23 to channel 9. That would have meant BBC Four moving to channel 7, taking BBC Three's channel number.
So there was never any question of the local TV stations in Scotland and Wales, currently on channel 23, being stopped from moving to a more prominent position after BBC Three TV is closed.
Rather, the issue appears to be stopping the BBC from moving BBC Four to channel 7, a channel number that local TV operators want for themselves. Channel 8, even after the BBC Three changes remains used by Channel 4 in Wales and BBC Alba in Scotland, and so can't be used nationally.
But could the BBC swap one channel for another?
Digital UK, the organisation responsible for allocating Freeview channel numbers, currently allows commercial channel "families" to swap channel numbers and leapfrog other channels, if it means sister channels can be moved more closely together.
Commercial broadcasters can under Digital UK rules swap their own channels between the channel numbers it occupies on Freeview. UKTV used this option when it swapped Dave and Yesterday (channels 12 and 19), and moved Really to channel 17 in 2012. Channel 4 did a similar move, when it moved More4 from channel 13 to channel 14 to create space for Channel 4+1. Earlier this year, Viacom's Channel 5 moved its channels around when Spike launched - moving 5USA from channel 31 to 21, parachuting Spike into channel 31 and moving VIVA down to the bottom of the channel list. ITV also made use of the rules moving ITV4+1 to channel 26 to bag the channel number for ITVBe last year.
BBC channels come under section 310 of Communications Act 2003. Paragraph 7.6 of Digital UK's rules say they won't accept requests to swap channel numbers for channels that are covered by section 310. But they will adhere to Ofcom's EPG code when giving prominence to such channels. This provides flexibility to allow BBC Four to move to channel 7 when BBC Three TV is closed, although both Channel 4 and BBC Alba could also legitimately shuffle up to channel 7 after BBC Three goes off-air, keeping local TV on channel 8 - but this time also in Scotland and Wales - and BBC Four on channel 9. Channel 23 could then be reallocated to another service.
In the meantime, local TV operators such as STV continue to lobby Ofcom and Digital UK in their effort to bag a better channel number from 2016.
Meanwhile, BBC Three HD closing down on channel 105 would provide Channel 5 HD an opportunity to make its long-awaited appearance on Freeview to bag what is the most logical channel number for the channel on the platform.
Separate from the fight over BBC Three's channel number is what will happen to BBC Three's current broadcast spectrum or the bandwidth currently used to carry BBC Three and BBC Three HD on Freeview. The BBC wants to take the first two hours from BBC Three's current allocation to allow CBBC to broadcast until 9pm, leaving the bandwidth currently used by both BBC Three and BBC Three HD beyond 9pm in doubt. The BBC says it's exploring various options, but won't comment any further at this stage.