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A new connected Freeview service

ANALYSIS Almost two years after most of Freeview's shareholders helped launch YouView, the announcement that they are behind plans to launch a new connected TV platform comes as no surprise.

Freeview's shareholders - the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Arqiva and BSkyB, the first four of which are also Digital UK's shareholders - say that the as yet unnamed service will "make the best of broadcast and on-demand TV available free for everyone."

For months there have been reports and rumours from within the broadcast industry of how YouView has been dominated by BT and TalkTalk's pay TV offering and how in effect, the free-to-air broadcasters have helped to set up internet pay TV platforms. Only a small minority of consumers have opted to get YouView without a BT TV or TalkTalk subscription. This spurred on reports of a Freeview branded alternative. However, it should be noted that a connected Freeview service was first mooted in the spring of 2012 - before YouView had even launched.

Earlier this year, a new agreement was signed between the YouView shareholders, which includes all of Digital UK's shareholders, plus Channel 5, BT and TalkTalk. The new YouView agreement saw BT and TalkTalk take a greater control over the development of the platform. In true corporate speak, BT said in its annual report documentation that the new YouView shareholder agreement would give it "more control" over its "roadmap". It provided a sign that the broadcasters involved in the project were slowly starting to take their hands off YouView, but still wanted to have some say in the service. And Digital UK are currently consulting on giving YouView access to a greater range of channel numbers to facilitate further growth of YouView's internet TV channels as a result of Freeview and YouView continuing to share channel numbers.

In a report written before the new shareholder agreement has been signed, the BBC Trust conditionally approved the BBC's ongoing agreement in YouView, partly subject to YouView opening up to third party suppliers of internet TV services, who wanted to use "unicast" distribution rather than be forced to go via BT and TalkTalk.

The new connected Freeview service will put all that aside; it's proposition is to develop a straightforward branded wrapper for smart TVs and PVRs that simply combines the existing Freeview terrestrial service with catch-up TV from the main broadcasters, plus compatibility for the streamed channels found from Freeview channel 225 onwards and without any internet service provider getting involved to tie consumers down with lengthy pay TV contracts. No doubt BSkyB - a minority shareholder in Freeview - will see the platform as an opportunity to add Now TV to the user interface of options.

Since YouView was launched, smart, connected TVs have come a long way, removing the need for a separate box to access on-demand TV. Although full details of the service are yet to be revealed, the connected Freeview service will ensure that terrestrial and on-demand services are presented in a unified way across branded devices, and that the same range of on-demand / catch-up TV players are presented as options to viewers, rather than the hit and miss nature of some smart TV platforms, depending on which broadcasters have signed contracts with which manufacturers.

And as some smart TV owners have found out, some services might cease to be available or no longer be supported after a while. A smart TV coming under the wrapper of the new service would at least provide consumers with a degree of reassurance that the different connected TV services would be properly supported.

But why are the BBC and ITV taking part in yet another new connected TV service? They already support Freesat, which has had some success in its Freetime connected TV service - it's now available on Panasonic Viera Smart TVs with Freeview, for example. Why can't the Freetime platform be adopted for Freeview and save on the development costs? Well apart from the predictable chorus of complaints that would come from other TV platform operators and the competition concerns that would create, the development of a separate connected TV service allows the planned new service to stay focused on clearly promoting and securing the future of digital terrestrial television as an independent and self sustaining platform, meeting the needs of all of Freeview's shareholders.

Freeview/Digital UK - what's the difference?
FREEVIEW: the company set up to market digital terrestrial TV. Its shareholders: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Arqiva and BSkyB.

DIGITAL UK: the company responsible for managing the technical side of the digital terrestrial TV platform, including channel numbering and technical support for both viewers and broadcasters. Was originally set up to manage the digital switchover and communicate the changes to the public. It merged with DMOL (Digital Multiplex Operators Limited) at the beginning of 2013, when it took on the role of communicating the changes to Freeview due to 4G mobile roll-out. Its shareholders: the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Arqiva.


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