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Where Free TV will cost you...


The latest member of the Free TV Alliance, an industry association set-up to promote the harmonisation of free-to-view satellite services and technology across Europe raised some eyebrows this past week in the ongoing debate as to what actually constitutes free TV.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Germany's HD+ platform was joining the UK's Freesat, France's Fransat and Italy's Tivusat in being part of the recently established association.

The press release accompanying the announcement said that HD+ was  "the leading provider of high-definition, free-to-air satellite channels to the German market" and quoted Georges Agnes, Managing Director at HD+ as saying “HD+ is proud to be joining the FreeTV Alliance as we believe this will be a highly effective forum to contribute to the development of the free-to-air TV market."

However HD+ is a service that requires viewers to pay €60 annually or €5 on a rolling monthly basis.

While Freesat is the only member of the alliance that currently offers its channels completely free-to-air via satellite, Tivusat and Fransat offer channels on a free-to-view basis, using a smart card system to pacify rights holders and restrict the number of receivers where the service is available (whereas the main UK channels use a spotbeam to reduce overspill into countries where they don't have the rights to broadcast programmes). Fransat also offers optional access to pay TV services; Freesat is dabbling in offering paid for on-demand services.

But in Germany, for commercial broadcasters, free TV doesn't mean free as UK viewers would understand it.

A quick glance at the HD+ website reveals that currently, a new HD+ viewing card costs €65, with a renewal available for €60 a year or €5 on a rolling monthly basis, without a minimum contract period. Access to catch-up TV from the German commercial TV services via HD+ costs €5 a month. HD+ receivers do provide access to additional free-to-air, unencrypted services without a subscription.

The positioning of HD+ as a free TV service has prompted criticism in some quarters for several years in Germany, and the announcement that it has joined the Free TV Alliance has prompted mostly bemused comments on social media websites in the country, with users wondering how a service that costs money to access could ever be described as free.

But HD+, owned by satellite operator SES, argues that it isn't a pay TV service, and the fee is in fact a "service charge" that is levied to cover the technical and financial 'effort' or 'cost' of broadcasting in HD.

In 2009, SES Astra's Ferdinand Kayser, who was involved in setting up HD+, rebuffed criticism claiming "HD+ is free-TV. It is very amazing to see the confusion that some people create in the industry and public around the concepts of pay TV and free TV. Free TV is financed by advertising or public fees, pay-TV by subscriptions. The fact that a free TV channel, financed by advertising or public fees, is encrypted, does not mean that is becomes a pay TV channel. Cable TV, for example, is also not pay TV just because the access to the cable costs money. The same applies to public TV for which you have to pay a fee."

German viewers who refuse to pay for the €60 annual or €5 monthly fee for HD+ are still left with the full range of standard definition channels, with HD options confined mostly to the public service channels, which are covered through the German licence fee and advertising. Sky Deutschland subscribers get HD+ for free for the first six months, and then have the option to pay €5 a month on top of their Sky subscription. Last week, HD+ reported it had 1.6 million paying customers.

While the Free TV Alliance welcomes HD+ to its association as it works towards harmonising the technology behind free-to-view satellite services, it's unlikely that any UK platform operator could ever get away with calling itself 'free' if it involved paying a monthly or yearly technical service charge.

In the UK, Sky generally offers commercial broadcasters solutions to cover the technical and financial costs of HD distribution. This has led to numerous HD channels from ITV, Channel 4 and 5 residing behind a paywall, despite the standard definition versions being free-to-air.

Watching the Neighbours
This is part of an occasional series of articles featuring developments in Europe of interest to UK readers.

Previously in this series:  
Spain - big retune for Spanish terrestrial viewers (12 Oct 2014) 


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