UK broadcasters develop free digital TV service to take on streaming

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Britain’s public sector broadcasters will launch a digital service that will end the need for an aerial to access all freely available channels allowing them to more directly compete against large streaming platforms.

In the latest sign of the squeeze on traditional linear television from the popularity of streaming rivals, the UK’s biggest broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have developed a platform to deliver live TV over broadband. 

The new service — called Freely — will be built into the next generation of smart TVs, in effect taking the Freeview TV platform on to the internet.

The service is expected to be introduced in new TVs from next year, but will not be available in older sets. This will mean British viewers will be able to watch live TV channels alongside on-demand content streamed to smart TVs via the internet.

UK TV viewers can currently watch live broadcasts over broadband through broadcasters’ individual apps but there is no electronic programme guide access.

Live TV delivers more than half of all viewing in the UK, according to Barb viewing data in 2022. Tim Davie, director-general of the BBC, said that “ensuring the universality of public-service television is sustained into the future is of paramount importance to the UK and all its public service broadcasters”.

Freely is being developed by Everyone TV, the organisation that runs free TV in the UK and is jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. 

The partners have also agreed a new three-year funding deal for Everyone TV that will cover the launch costs of the service, which will require a consumer marketing campaign.

Everyone TV chief executive Jonathan Thompson said the service was a “reflection of the fact that a growing number of UK viewers are watching content online, but still want easy access to the shared experience of live TV”.

Thompson said that about 15 per cent of homes did not plug their TVs into an aerial — preferring to use broadband to watch via apps such as Netflix and iPlayer — but that this number was forecast to grow to 50 per cent by the end of the decade. These homes are unable to access the free live channels available over the aerial via the programme guide.

“In essence, we’re filling that gap. We’re offering a service to manufacturers that they will embed into their TV so when you go to the live TV experience, you will get a very familiar, aggregated experience but being streamed over the internet.”

Thompson said that the online services would have added functions — for example, allowing the watcher to see more details of a programme.

Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV, said that “as more and more UK households use internet-connected TVs, it’s critical that the public service broadcaster channels remain available and easy for them to find”.

She added: “This new collaboration enables the UK public to continue to get all of their favourite British TV channels, for free — just as Freeview did at the advent of digital TV. Alongside the important reforms set out in the draft media bill it will help PSBs to continue to thrive for years to come.”

The service has greater significance given the growing popularity of large tech groups and streaming platforms such as Amazon and Netflix that has seen a shift away from people watching TV in a traditional, linear way. 

Executives at the broadcasters are concerned that next generation TVs will prioritise these streaming services over the freely available public sector channels when viewers first switch on their sets. 

The government has responded by proposing new rules in the forthcoming media bill designed to ensure that these public channels are given “‘prominence’ on digital TVs.

Everyone TV said the new service would complement the new provisions for on-demand and streaming prominence set out in the draft media bill.

Alex Mahon, chief executive of Channel 4, said that “when the media bill’s prominence provisions become law, the technology to make Britain’s favourite TV shows easy to find will already be in place”.

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