Freeview Proposing Long-Awaited Big HD Channel Changes

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A major overhaul to Freeview channel numbers (HD vs SD in particular) might take place, in addition to a long-awaited capability of watching some live channels without an aerial – following a consultation published today by Digital UK.

Established in 2002, Freeview is the United Kingdom’s terrestrial television platform. It provides free-to-air TV channels and radio stations (via a Freeview aerial), including more than 80 standard and HD channels (See our full Freeview guide here).

Digital UK leads the development of Freeview, and holds Ofcom licences to provide an Electronic Programme Guide and its listing of Logical Channel Numbers (LCN). Those channel numbers are then used by Freeview, Freeview Play, BT TV, TalkTalk TV, YouView, EE TV and NOW TV.

Freeview Play EPG

This week, Digital UK published a consultation, looking to hear opinions and comments from the public, regarding a set of proposals that will bring some big changes to Freeview, especially on newer devices (This is unrelated to the big channel numbering shakeup that occurred last month).

Replace SD Channels With HD Versions

High Definition (HD) channels have been available on Freeview for more than 10 years. 

And yet, on the EPG, HD channels have been pushed back to the 101+ numbers. So BBC One (SD) is on channel 001, with the HD version – which most viewers will probably be more interested in – is on channel 101.

The same goes for BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, and all the channels that have both an SD and HD version.

Watching BBC on tv 1200

This used to make sense when HD televisions were not common – if someone with an SD-only TV tries to watch an HD channel, he would see nothing – so placing it on Channels 001 and onwards might have caused an outcry.

But these days, with 4K becoming the norm, HD-capable televisions are quite common.

Therefore, in their consultation, Digital UK is offering to finally change the old numbering order, and substitute SD channels with their HD equivalent:

“If a channel is available in both SD and HD, then the channel provider may choose for the HD version to appear in the LCN allocated to the SD version on devices that support Channel List Management.

“In the case of Public Service Broadcast (PSB) channels, where an HD version is substituted in the LCN for the SD version, all programming on the HD version must be an exact simulcast of the SD version in order to satisfy Ofcom’s PSB prominence requirements that are due to
come into effect on 4 January 2021.”

The older HD number (above 100) may be left in its place as well, meaning some channels will appear twice in the listing.

It’s important to note that this change, if implemented, would only work on Freeview devices that support Digital UK’s “Channel List Management” technology.

That technology was implemented on Freeview devices released in 2020 and onwards (though older ones may get it with a software update).

This may cause some confusion, as some older devices would still show the older channel numbers, while newer devices will show the new, HD-first numbering.

While Freeview tell us that this will be up to the channel providers to decide whether to implement or not, they would work with each channel provider to minimise any potential for confusion (assuming, of course, the proposals are passed into policy).

IP Fallback: Streaming Channels Without An Aerial

Another exciting change proposed on the consultation, would seamlessly let viewers without an aerial (or with a bad signal), watch the internet (streamed) version of the channel – if one exists.

Technically this is already possible today, but with some work: You can already stream live versions of some of the major Freeview Play channels via their apps (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc’).

Freeview Play on TV

However, with the proposed change, you would not need to manually run each app and look for the live feed. 

Instead, you would simply switch to a channel that is similar to a linear, over-the-air channel – but would broadcast its content over your broadband connection, instead of over-the-air. 

This can be implemented either by replacing the original channel, or with a set of dedicated, IP-only channels.

And, for the time being, this would only be supported on Freeview Play devices, which are already connected to the internet.

Additional Proposed Changes

The two first proposals are the most exciting, but Digital UK is proposing a few additional changes in their full consultation:

  • Remove the current restrictions on how many times channel providers are allowed to change their channel’s name (for example – when they change it to a Christmas-themed channel temporarily), or how many times they are allowed to change channel numbers within their own “batch”.
  • Remove the current restrictions on channel providers trading channel numbers (with the exception of Public Service Channels).
  • Implement a broadcast minimum of 6 hours per day or 42 hours per week for new channels.

All of these changes are not here just yet, and might change following responses to the consultation – but this sets a possible path to some long-awaited changes.

We asked Freeview about possible timeframes for these changes, but since this is still in the consultation phase, they can’t set any timetables yet.

However, since 2020 Freeview boxes already support the required technologies, the implementation should be a straightforward process, if and when it happens.

The public, and stakeholders, can send responses to the consultation until January 13, 2021. You can read the full document here.