Television in the UK is on the cusp of a transformative era, and Freeview, the service that provides free-to-air channels to millions, finds itself at the heart of this change.
A consultation published this week by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, is stirring the pot, asking probing questions about the financial sustainability and long-term relevance of traditional TV platforms like Freeview.
Could this be a sign that Freeview’s days are numbered, or is it an opportunity for the service to evolve?
Adding to the intrigue is the upcoming launch of ‘Freely,’ a broadband-based live TV service set to debut in 2024. Developed by Everyone TV, the same consortium behind Freeview and Freesat, this new service could serve as a blueprint for free-to-air TV’s future.
Meanwhile, the disappearance of popular Freeview recorders from the market raises questions about the features consumers might have to sacrifice as we move towards a more internet-centric model of TV consumption.
The answers could reshape how we all watch TV – so let’s take a closer look at the questions.
Ofcom’s Consultation Explained
When we talk about Ofcom’s role in the future of Freeview (and Freesat), it’s important to understand what a “consultation” actually is.
In simple terms, a consultation is a process where Ofcom seeks opinions from the public and industry stakeholders about potential changes in regulations or services.
It’s a way for the regulatory body to gather evidence and viewpoints that can inform its decisions.
So, when Ofcom releases a document like this week’s “Call for Evidence on the Future of TV Distribution,” it’s essentially asking for input on how TV is being consumed today and how it might be consumed in the future.
Typically, those who respond to these types of consultations are public broadcasters, pay-TV companies, advertisers, various stakeholders and even private citizens.
The consultation document is quite comprehensive, covering a range of topics that could have a direct impact on the future of Freeview.
One of the key areas of focus is the financial sustainability of TV distribution platforms like Freeview.
Ofcom is keen to understand whether the current models are economically viable in the long term, especially as more people shift towards internet-based platforms for their viewing needs.
Another significant point raised in the document is the potential for ‘hybrid’ services that combine terrestrial and internet-based TV.
Ofcom is exploring whether such services could offer a middle ground, providing the benefits of both traditional and online platforms.
This could be particularly relevant for consumers who are not yet ready to fully transition to internet-based TV (either because their broadband isn’t fast enough, or because of technical understanding) but are looking for more flexibility in how they consume content.
Freeview’s Future: Reading Between The Lines
While Ofcom’s consultation document is not a definitive policy statement, it does offer several clues that can be interpreted as hints about the possible future of Freeview and Freesat.
The very fact that Ofcom is seeking evidence on the long-term role of Digital Terrestrial Television suggests that its future is not set in stone.
The consultation specifically asks for input on what the role of DTT should be beyond 2034, when the current national multiplex licences are set to expire.
This could mean that Ofcom is considering whether Freeview, in its current form, will continue to be relevant in the years to come.
Another telling point is the focus on the financial sustainability of TV distribution platforms like Freeview.
With the rise of streaming services and the increasing costs of maintaining terrestrial broadcasting infrastructure, Ofcom seems to be questioning whether the traditional Freeview model is economically viable in the long term.
This could be a significant hint that changes may be on the horizon, especially if the consultation reveals that Freeview is struggling to compete financially with internet-based platforms (with many of them owned by huge American companies).
It may hint at a future where the public broadcasters (like the BBC and ITV) are still very much with us – but using other platforms (mainly broadband) to reach our homes, instead of aerials and satellites.
The consultation also explores the possibility of ‘hybrid’ services that combine both terrestrial and internet-based TV.
This suggests that Ofcom is open to the idea of a more flexible TV distribution model that incorporates elements of both traditional and online platforms – maybe as a middle-stage.
For Freeview, this could mean a transition towards a more internet-centric service, perhaps something along the lines of the upcoming ‘Freely’ service, which aims to deliver live TV over broadband.
Lastly, the involvement of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) indicates that the government is also taking an active interest in the future of Freeview.
The DCMS has asked Ofcom to review market changes affecting DTT and other platforms, which could lead to significant policy changes down the line.
The Rise of ‘Freely’
The upcoming launch of ‘Freely’ in 2024, and the dwindling availability of Freeview recorders in the UK, are two seemingly disparate events that could actually be interconnected, especially when viewed through the lens of Ofcom’s recent consultation.
‘Freely,’ as we previously reported, is a new service being developed by Everyone TV (the body that operates Freeview and Freesat).
It aims to deliver live TV over broadband, essentially bringing the Freeview experience to the internet. This is a significant development, as it could serve as a blueprint for how Freeview might evolve in the future.
These devices have been popular for their ability to record live TV, a feature that is currently missing from most streaming services, including the proposed ‘Freely.’
The scarcity of these devices and the inflated prices for remaining stock (while many eagerly wait for the delayed release of the Manhattan T4-R), could be indicative of a market that’s in transition.
It might be a sign that manufacturers and broadcasters are shifting their focus towards internet-based platforms, which aligns with some of the questions raised in Ofcom’s consultation.
Ofcom’s exploration of ‘hybrid’ services that combine terrestrial and internet-based TV could be particularly relevant here.
If Freeview were to evolve into a more internet-centric service, it could potentially incorporate features from both traditional Freeview and upcoming services like ‘Freely.’
This would align with Ofcom’s interest in understanding the financial sustainability of TV distribution platforms.
If Freeview can successfully transition to a more internet-based model, it might find a new lease of life in a landscape increasingly dominated by streaming services.
But while the big broadcasters like the BBC and ITV focus on their huge streaming services (iPlayer and ITVX), where does that leave smaller channels that only thrive on Freeview and Freesat these days?
Will they be able to survive the costs of switching to streaming – where they’re just one channel among hundreds and even thousands of free, ad-based streaming channels?
For the time being, and the next few years at the very least, Freeview is very much here to stay, and its fans should not be immediately worried.
However, as the landscape of television consumption in the UK is undergoing a seismic shift, Freeview and Freesat find themselves at the heart of this transformation.
Ofcom’s recent consultation, the dwindling availability of Freeview recorders, and the upcoming launch of the ‘Freely’ service all point to a future where traditional broadcasting may give way to internet-based platforms.
This raises critical questions: Will Freeview adapt to become a more internet-centric service, and what will happen to smaller channels that currently rely on the platform?
As we await the outcomes of Ofcom’s consultation and the launch of ‘Freely,’ the future of Freeview hangs in the balance.
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