A potential earthquake is coming to the UK TV industry, as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 announce plans to merge Freesat and Digital UK (the company that operates Freeview).
The plans were announced today, and are conditional on receipt of merger control and regulatory approvals. Subject to those approvals, the merger is expected to close in a few months, and can bring with it big changes to how free TV works in the UK.
Established in 2002, Freeview is the United Kingdom’s terrestrial television platform. Freeview provides more than 80 free-to-air TV channels and radio stations.
Digital UK, a company owned jointly by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 (and previously Arqiva, who is stepping down this March), leads the development of Freeview and its digital streaming service, Freeview Play. It also holds the Ofcom licences to provide an Electronic Programme Guide.
Freesat was established in 2007 by the BBC and ITV, and offers more than 200 free-to-air TV channels and radio stations, all transmitted via digital satellite. To watch Freesat, you need a dish on your roof and a Freesat receiver (see our recommended Freesat boxes here).
Because Freesat uses satellite reception instead of the aerial waves, it is often a better solution in places where reception is bad.
The bulk selection of channels is identical between Freeview and Freesat, but there are some differences. Channel 4 HD, for example, was removed from Freesat a few years ago, while some channels are only available on Freesat and not on Freeview.
With both companies offering similar services – and owned by two of the same companies – having them operate separately was often questioned. This year, that situation may finally change.
The integration of Digital UK and Freesat, according to today’s announcement, “will help ensure viewers continue to have access to a range of free-to-view TV services in the UK as well as benefit from technological innovations and developments across the two services.”
“We welcome this opportunity to work more closely with Freesat”, said Jonathan Thompson, CEO of Digital UK, “Whilst continuing to deliver our mission of ensuring everyone in the UK can access a high-quality TV service for free.
“The combined entity will promote the very best of free-to-view content whilst reflecting the changing nature of consumer consumption.”
It’s still too early to say what possible changes this may bring to our screens. With Channel 4 also owning Freesat, would this bring Channel 4 HD and All4 back into the Freesat fold? Will the channel list become identical at some point?
More Freeview Changes Coming
Today’s announcement follows several big potential Freeview changes that were reported in recent months.
The big one, which we told you about earlier this month, is the rumoured united UK streaming app, which would finally bring together the streaming services of all the major UK broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
It was reported at the time that the discussions are being hosted by Freeview. Merging both the digital streaming services AND Freesat’s services into a single service, would potentially put UK broadcasters in a better position to fight the giant American streaming services like Netflix and Disney+.
In addition, late last year Digital UK published a public consultation, proposing to give Freeview’s HD channels priority over their SD versions, as well as automatically replacing over-the-air channels with their internet-streamed version, when reception is bad.
This has the potential to finally turn the whole of Freeview into a streaming-based service, and end the myriad of complaints from users over bad reception.
We will of course continue to follow this story as it unfolds throughout the year – so make sure you Subscribe to our free newsletter.