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Top Up TV: obituary

TOP UP TV 2004 - 2013

After months of speculation, Top Up TV has confirmed that it will be going off air for good after just nine years in business.

The service will close at the end of October.

Top Up TV entered the market in March 2004. Coming less than two years after ITV Digital's collapse, it wanted to prove that there was a demand for a basic pay TV service through an aerial. Its sales pitch was to offer a few popular pay TV channels that viewers with Freeview could quickly add to their channel line-up. Viewers with ex-ITV Digital boxes were once again able to regain access to some of the channels originally broadcast on ITV Digital.

On the 31st March 2004, Top Up TV launched with a 10 channel bouquet consisting of E4, Discovery, Discovery Home and Leisure, TCM, UKTV Gold, UKTV Food, UKTV Style, Bloomberg, Boomerang and Cartoon Network on board - all as part time channels sharing part of a total of 4 1/2 video streams across two digital multiplexes, broadcasting alongside the existing Freeview service.

The service used what was then spare capacity from Channel 4 and 5 on the digital terrestrial television platform.

When Channel 4 decided to make E4 a Freeview channel, E4 left Top Up TV's capacity and went 24/7. Top Up TV replaced the channel with British Eurosport and rejigged the timings of several channels. Between 2005 and 2010, Top Up TV also hosted Teacher's TV as a part-time free-to-air channel - initially overnight and later on during the late afternoon.

Top Up TV suffered a set back, when in 2006, Channel 5 claimed two of its slots back so it could launch two new digital offshoot channels. Top Up TV was forced to change its business model, and offer an "on-demand" service, which downloaded programmes during the night and early morning, when regular channels were off-air,  to special recorders. In a pre-iPlayer era this was quite a revolutionery idea. But then iPlayer and Sky Anytime and numerous other providers appeared on the market, all offering services on demand, simply downloaded from the internet. Its existing service was gradually wound down from that point, leaving just Gold and Home (the former UKTV Style) in the end.

With the rise of Setanta Sports, Top Up TV give over more of its limited terrestrial capacity to the channel in the hope that the easy access to Premiership football would lure more subscribers. Setanta went off air in the UK in June 2009, but ESPN saved the day, and by August 2009, Top Up TV was able to continue to promote top flight football.

Other than that, Top Up TV failed to adjust with the times, and the Anytime service, re-branded "TV favourites" dwindled. As content agreements with distributors ended, services were just removed without any notice given to customers.

A now disputed Ofcom ruling in 2010 that stated that Sky Sports 1 and 2 should be offered to pay TV operators at more favourable terms sent Top Up TV a lifeline, but at a cost.

BT, at the beginning of its journey to becoming a major pay TV player, snapped up two slots on a digital terrestrial TV multiplex so it could offer Sky Sports 1 and 2 to subscribers of its BT Vision service.

Until then, BT viewers had been able to tap into Setanta Sports, later ESPN hosted by Top Up TV. Top Up TV made the deal reciprocal, enabling its own subscribers to access the BT-hosted Sky Sports channels.

In doing the deal, two thirds of Top Up TV's service became reliant on BT for its future. When BT announced it was entering the sports TV market and going to replace Sky Sports 1 and 2 with its own channels, the pressure was on to reach a deal with BT to secure access to BT Sport. Then BT announced it was acquiring ESPN's UK channels, meaning that all of Top Up TV's "eggs" were in one basket - BT's...

BT and Top Up TV failed to reach a deal, sealing Top Up TV's fate. On the 3rd June 2013, subscribers were told in a letter that they should contact rival Sky to make arrangements to continue watching premium sport, with special offers available to ex-Top Up TV subscribers.

Sky Sports 1 and 2 were withdrawn at the stroke of midnight into 1st July, with ESPN following suite a month later.

This left the service with a small residual offering consisting of movie on demand service Picturebox, and a few hours of content via its TV Favourites service. On the 11th September 2013, remaining subscribers began to receive letters alerting them to the end of the service at the end of October 2013.

By which point, the emerging IPTV sector, including services such as Now TV and the soon-to-launch VuTV, were beginning to offer what Top Up TV originally set out to do: a few extra pay TV channels for Freeview viewers who didn't want to commit to a bundled package or lengthy contracts, but this time without the expensive terrestrial TV carriage costs and capacity restraints that affected Top Up TV.