Public service broadcasters join forces on catch-up service for smart TVs

BBC, Channel 4 and ITV work to make catch-up services available as standard on smart TVs under Freeview Connect brand

The BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are leading an initiative to secure the future of free-to-air viewing on internet-enabled TV sets, under a new brand called Freeview Connect, a move in part sparked by the hijacking of YouView by pay-TV partners BT and TalkTalk.

The broadcasters have banded together to establish a new service to make their catch-up TV services – BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD – available as standard on smart TVs.

It was originally envisaged that YouView would be used as the future brand and technology for public service broadcasting, eventually replacing less advanced Freeview which is in more than 13 million homes.

However in a telling move, the broadcasters have plumped to recommit to Freeview.

It is understood that a number of issues arose while pushing YouView to TV manufacturers, including that the technology is not accepted as a European-wide standard, and a requirement for viewers to only use a YouView-led user experience on TV sets.

This has been exacerbated by the perceived ideological hijacking of YouView – a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, TalkTalk, BT and Arqiva – by its telecoms partners to build their pay-TV services.

Last week it emerged that the BBC and the other public service broadcasters (PSBs) intend to dramatically reduce their investment and involvement in the joint venture when the new shareholders agreement comes into force in April.

Freeview Connect is being spearheaded by industry body Digital UK, which is funded by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Arqiva and which has a mission to ensure the universal availability of public service TV.

While Digital UK has always had a role to lead on platform strategy and explore new technologies, the spearheading of the Freeview Connect project is a significant sign and a continuation of its very public position as a champion and defender of Freeview.

One source said that the aim of Freeview Connect is for the PSBs to "get back to their free roots" but that the move is not specifically anti-Sky. The source believes that once Freeview Connect is up and running there is no reason why companies such as BSkyB might not be involved.

Last month the PSBs used Digital UK to publish a 77-page report warning the government and Ofcom about the dangers of potentially shifting digital terrestrial television from the spectrum it occupies to give more space for mobile operators.

The report warned of the vacuum that would occur if Freeview did not have the spectrum it needs to be developed, including that pay-TV operators would win over Freeview customers, which would be detrimental to the PSBs.

With as many as 3m households set to have a smart TV by the end of this year, and given that the user experience is controlled by the TV manufacturers, it has become increasingly important for broadcasters to secure their prominence. To date smart TV manufacturers such as Samsung, Panasonic and LG have struck individual deals to make their catch-up TV services available, meaning viewers can only access certain services on particularinternet-enabled sets.

Freeview Connect aims to create an industry-standard technology and service that will be acceptable to all TV manufacturers and ensure the prominence of PSB services and content on smart TVs.

Digital UK has become much more vocal since the appointment of Caroline Thomson, the former chief operating officer at the BBC, in January last year. Last week Thomson appeared in front of a committee of MPs taking testimony on the BBC's £100m DMI technology disaster, where she described how she "pleaded" to work her notice but was forced to leave immediately by then director general George Entwistle.

Contributor

Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

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