Freely, the broadband-based replacement for Freeview and Freesat, is finally launching later this year – and this week, some new details were finally revealed about the service – including its brand new electronic guide.
The eagerly anticipated broadband-based service, spearheaded by Everyone TV (the body behind Freeview and Freesat) and set to be embedded in the next generation of smart TVs and set-top boxes, is not just another addition to the existing digital television landscape.
Instead, it heralds a significant shift, particularly in how electronic programme guides (EPGs) will function compared to those of Freeview and Freesat, with a brand new system for channel numbering.
For example – certain channels will get better channel numbers on Freely, if they’re already popular on Freeview.
It’s worth mentioning that Freeview and Freesat aren’t going anywhere for now – and Freely will live alongside those two options in the coming years.
In June 2023, Everyone TV embarked on an important venture, consulting on a Logical Channel Number (LCN) Policy for Freely.
This week, they have released a statement detailing the outcomes of this consultation, providing insights into the responses received and the pivotal decisions made.
This statement is more than just a summary of feedback – it’s a window into the future of Freely, revealing how it will transform the way we navigate and enjoy television.
What Is Freely?
Freely, which was announced in September 2023, represents a major change in the evolution of UK television, merging the traditional broadcasting format with the convenience and flexibility of modern streaming TV.
Developed by Everyone TV (previously known as Digital UK, the company behind both Freeview and Freesat), Freely is a collaborative effort involving the UK’s major broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5.
Unlike Freeview and Freesat, which primarily rely on aerial and satellite signals, Freely combines these traditional methods with broadband to provide a more comprehensive range of viewing options.
This means that alongside standard broadcast channels, viewers can also access a variety of IP-delivered channels once their Freely-compatible devices are connected to the internet.
Freely has been designed to ensure both backwards and forward compatibility. Freely devices will operate like a standard DTT (aerial-based) device if
only connected to DTT, or like a Freesat device if just connected to DSat (with their respective Freeview and Freesat EPGs).
But once connected to the internet, Freely devices will deliver IP channels alongside channels that come over-the-air (like the Freeview and Freesat channels), all of which would be accessed via the new unitary EPG.
However, At launch (later this year), Freely will only be supported on “next-gen” Smart TVs – with Hisense recently named as the first partner to manufacture a Freely TV (Update: Vestel was later named as the second Freely partner)
This means that, at least for the time being, older Freeview TVs, as well as older Freeview set-top boxes, will not support Freely.
This week, Everyone TV did state that Freely set-top boxes will be available at some point, but we don’t know when exactly – and which boxes.
Furthermore, Everyone TV stated that Freesat TVs and set-top boxes will NOT be supported at launch – with the intention that satellite (DSat) compatibility will follow “at a later stage.”
It’s worth pointing out that Freely will be a brand new – and separate – television platform, living alongside Freeview and Freesat. Freely TVs will support over-the-air digital terrestrial channels, but those won’t be Freeview channels, they will be Freely DTT channels.
Whether that distinction has any real-life implications (a different set of channels between Freely and Freeview, for example) – remains to be seen.
What Sets Freely Apart: A Deep Dive into the New EPG
One of the key changes, discussed in this week’s statement, relates to the evolution of the Freely EPG.
The EPG is the heart of your TV viewing experience – it’s the menu that lets you browse channels and select programmes to watch. But in the age of streaming and on-demand content, the traditional EPG is set for a major overhaul.
Freely’s EPG, and its channel numbering, will be fundamentally different from the current Freeview and Freesat EPGs.
Freeview and Freesat both have their unique listings and Logical Channel Number (LCN) policies. They differ in terms of genre categories used and the order of channels within each genre.
Unlike Freeview and Freesat, each with its own LCN policies, Freely introduces a bespoke LCN system designed for its hybrid nature.
The newly published policy categorises channels into specific TV Genre Categories:
- Faith & International
The approach is to balance variety with accessibility, aiming for more categories than Freeview but fewer than Freesat.
Prioritising Public Service Channels
As with Freeview and Freesat, Freely’s EPG will distinctly prioritise the public service channels.
The EPG will designate the top five slots in the Entertainment Genre Category exclusively for major public service channels, a move that ensures their continued prominence and easy accessibility for viewers.
These slots are allocated to the main channels of the UK’s leading public service broadcasters: BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1, Channel 4, and Channel 5.
In specific regions like Wales, S4C is given a priority slot, highlighting Freely’s consideration for regional broadcasting needs and preferences.
|Allocated according to reach and pairing
|Allocated according to reach and pairing
Popularity-Based Channel Organisation
Freely’s approach to organising channels in its EPG, beyond the prioritised public service channels, hinges on a unique popularity-based system.
This method uses specific metrics to determine a channel’s popularity, ensuring that the most viewed content is easily accessible to viewers.
For channels already existing on Freeview, Freely utilises average weekly five-minute reach as the key measure of popularity.
This metric, calculated using a full year of data, effectively gauges how many viewers tune into a channel for at least five minutes on average each week.
The channels with higher reach figures will be positioned more prominently in the EPG, reflecting their popularity among viewers.
For brand new IP-only channels, Freely has developed a distinct approach at launch.
These channels, which do not have a presence on Freeview / Freesat and are not measured by traditional metrics like BARB, are initially ranked and allocated Local Channel Numbers (LCNs) after existing DTT channels.
Freely plans to offer LCNs to IP-only channel providers in pairs, based on their existing channel positions or, for those without existing channels, on a first-come, first-served basis. This system is designed to ensure a fair and orderly introduction of new channels into the EPG.
This popularity-based system for channel organisation reflects means existing – and, in particular – currently popular channels will have an advantage on Freely – at least when it comes to channel numbering.
In response to June’s consultation, UKTV raised concerns about the potential for Free Ad-Supported Streaming (FAST) channels to overwhelm the EPG, suggesting that better-funded channels with more original content might be lost in a crowded Entertainment genre.
In response, Everyone TV reiterates its commitment to being technology-neutral and not making value judgments based on technology, ensuring a fair and equitable platform for all channels.
However, Freely’s approval process for IP-delivered channels will include a set of common technical and regulatory standards, with requirements for a minimum of six broadcast hours.
This approach aims to maintain a high standard of service quality across the platform.
Addressing Concerns and Complaints about Freely
As Freely prepares for its 2024 launch, Everyone TV has also acknowledged and addressed various concerns and feedback from industry experts and viewers.
Many respondents have shared their visions for what a next-generation platform like Freely should offer. Key suggestions included:
Enhanced App Integration: A call for greater use of apps and the integration of linear TV channels with these apps.
Customisation and Personalisation: Respondents expressed a desire for customisable and personalised interfaces, including advanced search and discovery features, using filters and metadata.
Personalised Recommendations: There’s a demand for a system that learns viewer preferences and suggests content accordingly.
Cross-Platform Accessibility: Suggestions included having a dedicated app for Freely on mobile devices and other TV platforms, such as Apple TV, to ensure broader access (as it stands, Freely will only be available as a standalone platform on supported TVs and set-top boxes, and not as an app on other devices – at least for now).
The second category of feedback mainly comes from viewers concerned about the transition to broadband-based delivery, as opposed to aerials and satellites:
Retention of Freeview and Freesat Services: Viewers expressed worries about potentially losing their existing aerial-based and satellite-based services, which they are content with.
Accessibility and Affordability Issues: Concerns were raised about certain groups, like the elderly, those in rural areas, and less wealthy individuals, not having access to or being able to afford fast internet services and new equipment.
Network Capacity: Doubts about IP networks’ ability to handle additional traffic without issues like buffering were mentioned.
While acknowledging that the transition to IP delivery raises important policy issues, Everyone TV has clarified that these are outside the scope of the current consultation.
However, they stress that:
For IP-Accessible Viewers: Freely aims to offer a richer experience alongside existing platforms.
For Non-Internet Users: A Freely device connected to an aerial will continue to function as a DTT (with aerial-based channels) device, and the same goes for Freesat devices, which will continue to work – therefore, at least for the time being, Freely will live alongside the two existing services.
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