ITV, the main commercial television broadcaster in Britain, is due to roll out its new online service this week. The majority of its programmes will eventually be available as previews, live simulcast streams and for up to 30 days after transmission. ITV plc is reportedly investing £20 million in the initiative which was originally due to launch earlier in the year.

When it was first announced to the media at the beginning of May, executive chairman Michael Grade described it as “a service unrivalled by any other commercial broadcaster, anywhere in the world”.

The new online service will be rolled out progressively, initially with the popular soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale. They will be followed by games, drama, lifestyle, sport, entertainment and news programmes by the end of July. There will also be live Champions League and UEFA Cup football, Rugby World Cup and Tour de France coverage.

The ITV1, ITV2 and ITV3 networks will be simulcast as online streams. Only a selection of ITV4 programmes will initially be available because of rights issues. The package will also exclude breakfast programming from GMTV, which has launched its online service. ITV will stream a package of highlights from the previous day instead.

ITV is facing a decline in traditional television advertising revenue and has been slow to develop a coherent online strategy. It spent £175 million acquiring the Friends Reunited web site, anticipating but failing to capitalise on the success of social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo.

Nevertheless, ITV will be ahead of the BBC in making the majority of its programming available online. The BBC plans to launch its own iPlayer later this summer. Channel 4 launched its online service earlier in the year. This means that within a matter of months, most programmes from the major terrestrial television channels in Britain will be available online.

ITV has elected to stream its programming, rather than making it available for download, potentially simplifying rights issues, but requiring users to be online while viewing. There are apparently also plans to make similar services available on mobile networks.

The real issue, perhaps, is how well users will be able to handle having to deal with various web sites, each with different dependencies, in order to view television programmes online.

There is clearly a role for aggregating such material to provide a single source of online programming, but broadcasters are equally determined to have a direct relationship with users.

Interestingly, Channel 4 will be offering third-party material on its 4oD service, after signing a deal with National Geographic Channel. Up 80 hours of National Geographic programming will be available on the Channel 4 web site.

“It’s a major deal for us and is symbolic of our desire to be an aggregator,” said Channel 4 new business director Rod Henwood. “We’re talking with everybody in this space now.”