FTA networks trumpet new services- with a catch

The free-to-air consortium Freeview today unveiled details of Freeview Plus, the brand name for a new technology will enable the broadcasters to launch broadband services, integrated catch-up viewing and an enhanced electronic program guide.

But there is a catch: All these bells and whistles will be available only to people who buy new TVs or set-top-boxes that can receive hybrid TV technology (HBBTV), which combines broadband and broadcast TV.

The technology is not backwards compatible, meaning existing TVs, PVRs and STBs won't be able to access Freeview Plus.

The FTA broadcasters are making a song and dance about this initiative in an effort to deter viewers from migrating to Foxtel and other pay-TV channels.

Freeview has not announced a launch date for Freeview  Plus, beyond indicating it will be in the next few months; other executives expect a May/June launch.

The features will include a 7-day, easy-to-use EPG; all FTA catch-up TV services through the TV screen and one EPG; the ability to browse and search programs for the next 7 days; and a favourites function with reminders.

Freeview Plus will have the capability of handling Subscription Video-on-Demand  and pay-per-view transactions which the commercial broadcasters are planning. But there is no indication yet that Freeview Plus will be the platform for those services.

“FreeviewPlus is one of the most important advances in free-to-air television in Australia since the introduction of digital TV,” said Liz Ross, General Manager of Freeview.

She said manufacturers will release a range of FreeviewPlus receivers to coincide with the launch and these will be available at all major appliance and electronics retailers. Manufacturers have indicated that between 80% and 100% of connected TVs will have hybrid technology, she told IF.

Ross believes the "killer application" will be the ability of viewers to access all the FTA broadcasters' catch-up services on their TVs via one remote. She expects to reveal the launch date some weeks hence.

She would not be drawn on the anticipated take-up levels of HBBTV-equipped sets but others in the industry doubt there will be a rapid conversion. 

“Freeview Plus built into Samsung and Sony Smart TVs will only hit shelves later in 2014, and the 'replacement' lifecycle of TVs means that some folks will wait 6-8 year before buying a new TV, " said one executive.

“On one hand, it makes FTA content more sticky but it will come at a heightened production cost for value-added content. On the other hand, it will also make a rational choice towards getting pay TV less of a necessity for consumers.”

Another executive forecasts it will take Freeview Plus three-to-four years to achieve critical mass, given it will start with zero connected homes.

Network Ten said its catch-up portal tenplay will be part of FreeviewPlus and that it is developing new content, channels and commerce opportunities that will be added to the service this year.

“The launch of FreeviewPlus is a very significant development for all free-to-air television networks and – more importantly – for consumers,” said CEO Hamish McLennan.