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How to bag a better Freeview channel number

Broadcasters appear to be finding more inventive ways to gain a better foothold on Freeview.

The removal of the last vestages of the Community Channel on Freeview this week has shed light on how broadcasters appear to be getting round a ban on trading channel slots on Freeview to gain a higher ranking number in the quest to reach new eyeballs.

The Community Channel ceased broadcasting full time on the digital terrestrial TV platform during August, in what would emerge to be part of a chain of events which would end up with A+E Networks UK's Blaze TV channel leapfrogging rival channels on Freeview.

A company, which appears to have legally exploited newly relaxed channel allocation rules on Freeview, was founded in May 2017 and based at the Community Channel's London address. A certificate of incorporation for the company - "TCC Broadcasting Limited" - was filed at Companies House on the 31st May 2017.

Later, the Community Channel's Ofcom licence to broadcast on Freeview was transfered to TCC Broadcasting Ltd. The Community Channel on Freeview rebranded to TCC and reduced its broadcast hours to 14 hours per week, the minimum required to retain a Freeview channel number allocation under new rules which came into place at the beginning of August 2017, following a consultation with broadcasters last winter.

That change in rules also permitted a more flexible approach to channels retaining their channel position on Freeview's EPG in instances where ownership had changed; previously had a new owner taken over a Freeview channel, any sudden change to content or name might have triggered a relegation to the bottom of the channel list in a bid by platform manager Digital UK to stop broadcasters buying other channels solely to buy access to a higher ranking Freeview channel number.

With the technical change in owner completed and the Community Channel's Freeview channel number secured, preparations were made to transfer ownership of TCC Broadcasting Ltd to the UK subsidary of media company A+E Networks, who were interested in gaining a better channel position for its free-to-air channel Blaze.  Having arrived late to the free-to-air party, many years after Sony Pictures Television, CBS and Viacom had realised the potential of Freeview and secured better ranking channel numbers, Blaze had been forced to launch in 2016 near the bottom of the list of entertainment channels.

On 31st August 2017, all original directors of TCC Broadcasting Ltd resigned, with the Community Channel ceasing to have dominant control over the company. At the same time A+E Networks UK took control, with Companies House confirming A+E had taken "more than 75%" of the voting rights in TCC.

As soon as this had taken place, A+E Networks UK applied a Freeview channel allocation rule that allows broadcasters to reshuffle their family of channels. As it happened, Blaze, previously on channel 80, appeared to be destined to benefit from a small shuffle-up anyway, following the closure of Rishtey on Freeview channel 77. With TCC now officially part of A+E's family of channels, a swap was made, with Blaze leapfrogging numerous channels including Horror Channel, CBS Reality and Your TV to reach channel 63. TCC moved to 77, Blaze+1 moved from 83 to 80.

A+E Networks UK will be hoping the move will help boost the reach of Blaze, although viewers that don't have automatically retuning TVs may well still have Blaze on its old channel number. A+E's eagerness to get a better slot may be justified: Channels lower down Freeview's channel list have struggled: TruTV UK was sold in early 2017 by US broadcaster Turner to Sony Pictures Television after disappointing viewing figures. Front Runner TV and Motors TV only lasted a short time. And Hindi channel Rishtey Cineplex only appeared on Freeview for a few months this year before the owner of the channel decided to take it and its sister channels behind a paywall.

Community Channel coming back?
Meanwhile, the operators of the BSL Zone, a strand of signed programmes that is broadcast on the Community Channel and Film4 has told viewers that the move to take Community Channel off Freeview was done with "short notice" and described it as "temporary". Whether this means TCC Broadcasting Ltd will be sold back to the Community Channel, giving the service an opportunity to restart a more regular service on channel 77 remains to be seen.

The Community Channel was set up by the Media Trust charity in 2000, but became an independent Community Benefit Society in 2016 following a crowdfunding exercise allowing ordinary viewers to take a share in the channel. It has traditionally relied on support from other broadcasters and platform operators who have provided it with broadcast capacity. The BBC originally donated 3 hours of early morning airtime to the channel in the first years of Freeview, before moving to spare Arqiva capacity during the period of digital switchover.

The Community Channel's apparant arrangement is not the first that has resulted in securing another broadcaster a slot on Freeview. In 2012, TV channel "Big Deal" began a transformation into "MovieMix", first featuring an old movie at night, later taking programming from the now defunct More>Movies channel. Strict rules on Freeview channel allocations and channel ownership changes meant that the changes were gradual: but over the years the licence to operate the channel was transferred and transferred again, eventually to Sony Pictures Television, who at the beginning of 2017, after just over four years of effort, reached their goal and changed the channel to Sony Movie Channel, thus securing a channel number more highly ranked than the likes of ITV+1, Challenge or CBS Action.