Latest news »

The future of Free TV  

Bob Campbell Director of Engineering, Resillion by Bob Campbell, Director of Engineering, Resillion

This year’s ‘Outside the Box’ event hosted by Everyone TV, featured a range of speakers looking to debate and ask challenging questions about the future of Free television. (ie. free at the point of consuming it, independent of how it’s delivered). On this occasion there was a chance to find out more about Freely, a new service featuring the UK’s major Public Service Broadcasters: BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. 

Free TV is growing, not shrinking. Free Ad Supported Channels (FAST) are springing up on TV native platforms as well as on the streaming platforms. Recent data from the U.S. shows that in January this year, Broadcast TV (the market most at threat from the streaming giants) grew by 7.1%, outperforming any other segment.  Although the risk of global domination by a few U.S. streamers is ever-present, some stories remain uniquely local and strike at the heart of public consciousness, and it’s hard to imagine these programmes being commissioned by a purely commercial and globally minded platform such as Netflix.   

Meanwhile the growing proportion of connected-via-internet only smart TVs in the UK today, which are forecast to reach 50% by 2030, are not addressed by Everyone TV’s current offerings. Freeview Play and Freesat still require a Terrestrial or Satellite Aerial.  

Introducing Freely: A game-changer 

Freely is an HbbTV Operator Application, which means that it has privileged access to take over some functions of the native TV UI, such as the channel guide. It provides similar user functions to the UK Pay TV operators, Sky and Virgin Media, and will offer these functions on a range of manufacturer TVs when they become available later this year. According to its creators, Freely is one of very few HbbTV OpApps running at this kind of scale anywhere in the world.   

Importantly, its most significant innovation (for historically free-to-air TV) is effortlessly joining both Over-the-air (OTA i.e. broadcast RF) and Over-the-top (OTT i.e. IP or broadband delivered) live streams in a single channel guide. Something that many reviewers and consumers may well overlook entirely, considering how seamlessly it’s designed to work.   

A full demonstration at Everyone TV HQ showed how smoothly the demo TV switched from live RF OTA channel to an IP delivered OTT channel, with almost no perceptual delay or picture breakup. Obviously, results will depend on the broadband service in the viewers home, but it was clear that this would be its real USP, albeit one that, when working as intended, should be invisible to its users.  

Freely have achieved this using their own metadata service that underpins the existing Freeview Play platform, and while this is different to DVB-I, it aims for similar results. This will be a significant step forwards to a future where more IP-only services could be seamless added to the platform.  

Once those IP-only channels are launched, broadcasters will immediately be able to deliver more targeted advertising. HbbTV Targeted Advertising has been developed to enable this over the air, with replacement of live broadcast ads with broadband delivered alternatives. But this is tricky to implement. Pure IP-only is more simple and more mature, so may allow the UK to move faster.  

There are interesting scenarios to explore, such as robustness of the picture and switching in the presence of low strength RF signals and/or network delays and bandwidth variations, but, on first viewing, it worked well.  

More information and technical detail on Freely is now also available in this HbbTV Webinar.  


Market opportunities and commercial challenges  

At Outside the Box, a panel discussed the challenges Freely faces. On one hand this represents a unique opportunity for the UK PSBs to collaborate and challenge the dominance of streamer apps and ensure the prominence of their content within the TV UI. But will this application be sufficiently exciting to attract a youth market back from YouTube and elsewhere? I hope that Freely will move fast to augment this initial roll out with more unique features and content, and consider, as another reviewer notes, the role Netflix, YouTube and others might play inside such a platform, instead of outside it.   

There’s evidence that other broadcaster entities elsewhere in Europe are taking note. Those familiar with Salto may question if the commercial and regulatory hurdles are likely to be too difficult or too slow to adapt to make this possible. Take note - they should. The technologies are all there, e.g. HbbTV Op Apps, DVB-I and targeted advertising to create similar compelling platforms in a cross device, standards-led way.  

While the U.S. is still some way behind a Freely-scale multi-broadcaster platform, progress is being made with the rollout of NEXTGEN TV. It too offers broadcaster applications that present a rich user experience and use the best of both OTA and OTT.   

At CES in January I saw demonstrations of ‘Broadcast IP channels’ — the same concept as DVB-I and Freely, these bring OTT under a single guide alongside broadcast OTA services. Pearl TV is leading broadcaster collaboration on consumer marketing, roll out and fostering a rich population of devices. Can U.S. broadcasters also collaborate on the app to the extent that the UK’s broadcasters have on Freely? Run3TV hints at a future that might just be the answer.  

Are these hybrid applications the future of Free TV? I think broadcast has a decreasing, but still important role, as many viewers will continue to rely on antenna delivered signals for some time yet. There’s also a strong argument to be made, that giving up on OTA entirely misses some concrete advantages for emergency alerting, sustainability, and datacasting. However, innovation on the consumer facing side is most likely to arrive over IP delivered linear and non-linear services so hybrid applications appear to represent the only future for such broadcasters to survive. Regulators and owners themselves need to adapt quickly to the reality that bigger is better, in a world dominated by the huge U.S. players.   

Resillion offers Quality Engineering support for Freely adopters and HbbTV Operator Applications. Resillion provides many core parts of the testing requirements for device manufacturers to implement Freely, and also for other HbbTV-based platforms in Europe, and NEXTGEN TV in the U.S. Take a look at our website for more detail.    

(This is an extract from a longer version at ) 

Want to learn how we can help?

    Our Accreditations and Certifications

    Crest Accreditation Resillion
    Check Penetration Testing
    RvA L690 Accreditation
    ISO 27001
    ISO 9001 Resillion
    CCV Cyber Pentest
    Cyber Essentials

    Contact Us