Freeview has overtaken satellite as the most popular way to view multichannel television in the United Kingdom. The availability of digital video recorders under the Freeview Playback brand will be a further boost to the platform as the nation prepares to switch of analogue transmissions.

With the rapid growth of Freeview, it now is now the leading interactive television platform in the country, at least in terms of numbers of users.

Long seen as a poor relation to the OpenTV system used on satellite, MHEG is an open standard for interactive television that was originally adopted in Britain and now supports the Freeview platform in the UK. It has also been adopted by the FreeView platform in New Zealand.

One of the main limitations of MHEG to date has been the lack of a return path, as inexpensive Freeview receivers only require an aerial connection. However, the increasing adoption of broadband, with more than half the country connected, offers the opportunity of hybrid boxes receiving both broadcast and broadband services.

BT Vision provides such a service, but in advance of a full marketing launch has so far signed up only a few thousand users. Similar services are expected to be launched by other operators, such as Orange, part of the France Telecom group.

Free digital terrestrial television is now the main means of watching television in 8.2 million homes in the UK. Around 1.7 million Freeview set-top boxes and integrated digital television set-top boxes were sold in the first quarter of 2007. It is estimated that more than 11 million homes have Freeview, although some of these represent secondary television sets.

BSkyB had over 8 million homes at the end of 2006, but claims that it is still on target to reach 10 million by the end of the decade. The Sky+ digital video recorder has proved popular with its subscribers, but faces competition from a range of recorders sold retail that do not require a monthly subscription.

The Freeview Playback brand will be used to promote digital video recorders that meet a basic specification. Compatible recorders will be available from Sony, Humax and TVonics through leading high street stores from next month. They will be followed by models from Alba, LG and Sharp, among others, in the summer.

“It’s like Sky+, but without subscription,” said Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of new media and technology, at the MIPTV industry convention in Cannes. “As Britain enters the endgame of analogue switchover, we have a four-year-long opportunity to achieve a step-change in the services which we deliver on Freeview, and to evolve and future-proof Freeview with additional advanced interactive and digital functionality.”

The BBC has been evaluating a technical trial to test pushing video-on-demand services to Freeview digital video recorders.

“It’s a simple catch-up service that could become the entry-point for audiences to on-demand for the first time,” Ashley expained. “Its advantage over a PVR is that you don’t have to remember to record your favourite BBC programmes, and that at any one moment, in addition to all the linear channels, there is always a freshly-prepared up-to-date carousel of 50 hours of on-demand programmes.”

However, he suggested that a combination of broadcast and broadband services would offer a powerful combination. “New, hybrid set-top boxes, that combine broadcast TV with an IP connection, give us additional opportunities to deliver on-demand services via Freeview. Hybrid boxes are a part of the future, as important — if not more so — than standard PVRs.”

“In a hybrid environment you can really start to mix and match, using the best of both worlds: linear scheduled TV via digital broadcast for new programming on the one hand, and deep archive via IP on the other,” he said. “There worlds may be converging, but they’re not in competition. The BBC will deliver content and applications via broadcast and IP, merging them into a seamless audience experience.”