Fifteen years after the launch of the Freeview digital terrestrial television platform in the United Kingdom, its managing director has warned that there is an urgent need to respond to the challenges posed by the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple. Speaking at the Outside the Box industry event, Guy North announced a new online Freeview ‘Bundle Builder’ as an addition to free television. His colleague Jonathan Thompson, the head of Digital UK, called for the television industry to come together face up to the threat from global online players.
“Free TV has always been at the heart of the UK’s TV ecology and is still seen as a democratic right by all of us,” the managing director of the free-to-air television platform said. “Freeview did a great job in democratising digital TV, giving everyone who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford pay TV, a simple and reliable way to watch more channels. More homes chose to switch to digital TV with Freeview than any other TV platform.”
“What’s striking is that where Freeview was once a poor relation to pay TV, it’s now a viable and credible alternative. With Freeview Play, viewers can build their own bundle,” he said.
An online ‘Bundle Builder’ will recommend subscription services to supplement free-to-air television. “By selecting their favourite programmes and answering some simple questions, the user will be presented with a recommendation for their ideal TV package.”
That is quite a shift, for a platform that was once resolutely positioned as the home of free television in opposition to subscription services. Now, viewers will be offered recommendations including the NOW TV subscription service from Sky.
He said Freeview Play was becoming increasingly important in the growth of on-demand viewing. “Today, we’re working with all but one of the leading manufacturers so we’re well on the way to achieving our ambition for Freeview Play to be built into every TV sold in the UK,” he said.
“To ensure that free-to-air television remains at the forefront of the UK’s TV industry broadcasters and policy makers must rise to the challenge and make sure content remains free and universally available whether broadcast, streamed or on-demand.”
Two years after launch, over two million Freeview Play devices have been sold. However, Fifteen years after launch, Freeview is still not available as an online proposition. Instead, its shareholder broadcasters offer their own separate online video services. There is no consolidated online service for mobile viewers from Freeview.
The managing director of Freeview suggested that might have to change, in the interests of viewers. “if they want to replicate their Freeview TV experience on mobile devices then that is what we have to look to do — because if we don’t, someone else will and frankly they already are.”
Jonathan Thompson, the chief executive of Digital UK, which is jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Arqiva, warned that industry was in danger of under-estimating the speed and scale of change coming to UK television and urged action to safeguard British programme making, public service content and competition.
“The rise of Netflix and Amazon has already been striking,” he said. “Ten million subscribers in the UK alone, from a standing start just five years ago. But this is a straw in the wind of something far more profound.”
“Any one of these players has the power and resource to transform our sector. Their combined impact will make the move from black and white to colour, from 3 channels to 4, or from 5 channels to 500, seem trivial by comparison.”
“It will require every player in the sector to raise their game or be blown away,” he warned. “How can we sustain the strength and diversity of UK production when Netflix and others can match every broadcaster pound with a fistful of online dollars?” He said: “the very foundations on which British broadcasting was built are shifting.”
“We have a choice. We can choose to become a footnote in the quarterly results of Apple or Amazon or we can strive for something better,” he warned. “Our industry needs to lead the charge and act together to strengthen rather than loosen the bonds on which our success was built. We must go faster and further than ever done before.”