No clear signal of a Freeview triumph

So, the BBC has promised its ‘biggest ever’ digital promotion for the launch of Freeview, the born-again DTT platform, which goes live at the end of this month. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? But can the promise live up to the hype?

Image often depends on which end of the telescope you wish to use. For Andy Duncan, marketing and communications director of the BBC, the benefits of the new brand are obvious. There will be 30 channels on offer, some of them new, all of them free. And it will be a true rainbow coalition, because quite apart from the enhanced eight-channel BBC offering, viewers will be able to tune into a broad choice of programmes from, among others, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, Five and Flextech.

But will it work? Given the cornucopia of free choice, it might seem churlish to point out a degree of duplication in the output: for example, too much news. There are, however, more serious, underlying issues which could qualify the success of Freeview. To see these, we need to swing the telescope round the other way for a moment.

The first of them is national reception – or rather lack of it. This was a problem the ITV version of DTT never managed to solve satisfactorily, at best reaching 65 per cent of the population. The new consortium behind Freeview (consisting of the BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle) has taken active steps to improve the situation. But even with boosted transmission, the initial reach will only be 75 per cent. How much this matters is difficult to ascertain. The introduction of an effective helpline should initially alleviate some of the understandable irritation felt by the many potential viewers who will not know whether they can receive the Freeview signal. But the consortium will need to move fast to achieve true national distribution, or lose out forever as the platform of choice to digital satellite and cable. The eventual success of Channel Five – a good deal less than a national channel when it launched – should offer some grounds for hope. But, remember, it was a struggle and one which ultimately depended on getting the distribution problem righted.

Equally, there is an issue raised by the multiple ownership of the Freeview platform, which may well affect its future profitability not to mention the size of its marketing budget. Corporate aims in a consortium can easily diverge. For BSkyB, part-ownership of Freeview represents useful tactical opportunism – and probably not much more. It has managed to skewer any pretensions ITV or C4 may have had of offering pay-TV competition, by effectively controlling their access to the DTT platform. At the same time, it can tap into the so-called pay-TV refusniks at minimal cost. But commitment to long-term investment is another matter.

After all, why bother committing your shareholders’ money to rapidly expanding a DTT audience when the BBC – and therefore licence payers’ money – is doing it for you already? Ironically, the BBC needs to demonstrate early signs of success in building an audience precisely because it does not want to be seen squandering public money on an expensive item of minority interest. Hence Duncan’s stiff target of 2 million households signed up by the end of 2004 – and up to 6 million by 2007.

But whether the BBC-driven model represents a recipe for eventual profitability, as opposed to a whopping financial black hole that causes a political scandal, remains to be seen.

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