Freeview looks to the future after solid start

Freeview is about providing viewers with a choice when accessing digital television, says chief executive

You have to mind your language when talking to Freeview chief Steve Browning. If you use the word “subscriber” to describe the Freeview audience, he is quick to correct: “We don’t call them subscribers. We call them households.”

Freeview has 62,000 of these now and Browning is obviously pretty pleased with progress, describing uptake as “still strong, very strong”.

He wants to be very clear about Freeview: it is not a pay TV player. But for anyone living in a country with one of the strongest subscriber TV audiences in the world, it is easy to fall into using the language of Pay TV.

So does Freeview want to eat Sky TV’s lunch?

“No and yes,” Browning says. Logically, he says, free-to-air TV can’t afford for Sky to get any stronger than it is now. Sky’s profit dwarfs the rest of the industry, he says, and will allow it to buy the rights to the best programming if there is no successful alternative.

“The economic argument was part of the rationale for the government getting involved in the first place,” he says.

If Sky’s market share got to 70%, it would tip the market beyond its ability to recover, he says. Freeview is there to help redress the balance.

Browning says Freeview is about providing viewers with a choice in digital television. It is also providing viewers with improved content choices, he says, arguing that some of TVNZ6’s shows would never have been contemplated for TVNZ channels One and 2.

Freeview will also allow more broadcasters to get on the air and that, in turn, provides more partners for would-be content producers to talk to.

“Competition is a good thing,” he says. “Choice is a good thing.”

Browning sees nothing unfair in TVNZ and Freeview being given a financial leg-up by the government.

“If they [Sky] were in business in any other country in the world, they would not be allowed to be the only Pay TV network and also own a free-to-air channel,” he says. “They’ve had a bigger leg-up just through the regulatory environment.”

Browning goes further: he wants to see Sky’s free-to-air channel Prime on Freeview. He says Sky can use Prime as a tool to get people onto Sky, by marketing the platform as the only way to receive all the free-to-air channels.

For all broadcasters there are huge challenges ahead, Browning says. The interface between broadcast and the internet “freight train” is the most challenging issue after Freeview’s launch, he says. The result will be a hybrid world where set-top boxes will have an IP connection. However, it is still unclear whether this will be an open world or a proprietary one.

Browning says he’s not worried by the possibility of a change in government. National is positive about Freeview and what it’s there to achieve, he says.

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