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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 08:00 GMT
Freeview marks its first year

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Freeview logo
Freeview's service, with 30 free channels, launched in October 2002
Freeview, the digital service which allows people to watch 30 channels without taking out a subcription, is celebrating its first year on air.

After the collapse of ITV Digital last year the short-term prospects for digital TV through an aerial in the UK looked bleak.

BSkyB's satellite service, with hundreds of channels, was enjoying rude health with well over five million users.

But the supposedly simpler ITV Digital alternative, where viewers picked up a smaller number of pay-TV channels through their aerial, was deemed to be an inferior rival.

Its 40-or-so channels were overshadowed by the 500 on Sky, and it was finally crippled by a costly deal to cover the Football League, one which most of its 1.2 million subscribers showed little interest in.

But six months later, the old ITV Digital boxes crackled back into life thanks to Freeview.

Freeview offered viewers the chance to pick up a basic set of 30 channels without having to sign up for a monthly subscription. All they had to do was buy a box for 100.

Crystal Palace transmitters
Freeview viewers can recieve digital TV through their regular aerials
All they need is a decoder box, or a specially-adapted TV
Its backers are the BBC, BSkyB and transmitter company Crown Castle
It can now be seen in more than two million homes
At least 1.4m are new Freeview households
Around 600,000 use the old ITV Digital boxes
Source: Freeview
Now, a year later, 2.1m homes are watching Freeview.

Many are still watching through old ITV Digital equipment. But Freeview boxes are selling well, with executives saying 24,000 boxes are being sold each week.

Some analysts believe that number could double again in the next year.

Channels on offer include BBC Three, BBC Four, ITV2, Sky News, UK History and music and shopping services.

The list is set to grow. Earlier this month Disney announced it was launching an entertainment channel which would appear in the winter.

80 boxes

Channel 4 is also said to be preparing an entertainment channel - much like its pay-TV service E4 - to launch on Freeview next year.

Set-top boxes cost as little as 80 now - and the price of the cheapest boxes could fall to as low as 20 in the future.

Some commentators believe Freeview has attracted TV viewers who would never have considered paying to for services such as Sky.

Matthew Seaman, Freeview general manager
Matthew Seaman said sales of Freeview had surprised the industry
Gordon MacMillan, editor of UK media website Brand Republic, said: "With two million homes signed up to Freeview, the service has exceeded expectations and it does it at a very affordable price.

"Testament to its success is easy to find. You just have to look at Disney's decision recently to launch on the free-to-air service.

"The only thing that is surprising is Sky holding off launching its own entertainment channel on the system. That looks like a missed opportunity. "

Freeview general manager Matthew Seaman told BBC News Online he is looking to add new channels as soon as possible.

But he said Freeview was still trying to come to terms with its first 12 months.

'More choice'

"After the collapse of ITV Digital, people thought digital terrestrial television wouldn't even survive," he said.

"We needed to regain the confidence of the consumers, the industry and manufacturers."

He added: "Sales have surpassed even our most optimistic forecasts - even at the height of summer - and we're really hopeful about sales this Christmas."

There are now 99 different boxes which can be used to receive Freeview, from set-top boxes to interactive PCs and DVD players with Freeview installed.

"We're finding that people are not just buying Freeview at the normal electronic stores, they are buying them at supermarkets and other stores," said Mr Seaman.

"It's attracting people who do not want to pay a monthly fee for their TV, but they do want more choice."

Alan Hansen on trailer
Celebrities such as Alan Hansen promoted the BBC's digital service last year
Freeview's range of channels is still too limited for some.

"There is not enough quality general entertainment programming, and I think there is too much reliance on music and news," said Ian Darby, media editor of advertising trade magazine Campaign.

"They might have to extend it a bit, because there is weakness in their programming."

But Mr Darby said Freeview's rapidly rising viewing figures would only make the service more attractive to broadcasters wanting to put their channels on the system.

"If it really does have more than four million households by the end of next year then you may see the serious contenders like Sky deciding to put more channels on - even Sky One," he explained.

"That could be the next stage of their evolution."

Disney plans Freeview TV channel
10 Oct 03  |  Entertainment
Freeview on the rise
29 Sep 03  |  Entertainment
Freeview set sales soar
31 Jul 03  |  Entertainment
Cheaper Freeview sets launched
23 May 03  |  Entertainment

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