Freeview presses the PVR button

Freeview wants every household in the country to own a personal video recorder (PVR) in a recorder market led by pay-TV services such as BSkyB’s Sky Plus. To that end, the marketing arm of DTV Services, made up of a consortium of broadcasters, is readying the launch of a branded PVR, Freeview Playback.

The equipment will be sold without restrictions on fast-forward speeds, despite ITV lobbying for a limit to combat “ad-skipping” (MW last week).

The PVR market is dominated by BSkyB’s Sky Plus service, which launched five years ago. It now has 1.6 million customers, a 75% year-on-year increase, and has doubled storage capacity. Cable, under the NTL and Telewest brands, also markets similar services. However, Freeview believes there is a lack of understanding in terrestrial and Freeview households, with many potential users unaware of digital recording devices and what they can do.

Limited penetration Freeview Playback was announced in May and will compete with Sky Plus, which allows viewers to record programmes on a hard drive, pause live TV and access electronic programme guides.

PVR penetration is low in the UK, with Merrill Lynch predicting that it will reach just 8% of households by the end of the year. It is estimated that will rise to between 20% and 30% by 2010.

Freeview general manager Cary Wakefield believes the numbers could be far greater. She says: “Our ambition for this is for every home in the country to have one.”

However, she acknowledges that a lot of hard work is needed, by Freeview as a consortium and by manufacturers and retailers, to sell the benefits rather than the technology. “As yet nobody knows they exist, and for it to be mass market we have to create a sense of understanding,” she adds. “We know that people absolutely love these products when they have them in their homes.”

Pete Edwards, co-founder of communications planning agency Edwards Groom Saunders believes the number of units sold will rocket as consumers become aware of the benefits. “It is so empowering to a TV viewer,” he says. “To have it fundamentally changes the way you watch.”

He adds that consumers are much more technology-savvy and love easy-to-use gadgets. “Gadgetry is much more egalitarian, far more democratic, than in the past,” says Edwards. “Devices are much more accessible and far simpler to drive.”

The expected popularity of such devices, particularly those marketed under the Freeview brand, is believed to have led ITV, a DTV Services shareholder, to lobby for a maximum fast forward speed of 16 times the normal playback speed. Sky Plus fast-forwards at 32 times the normal speed, with other PVR systems offering up to 64 times.

One source says ITV acted because of concerns over falling advertising revenues on its flagship ITV1 channel. However, experts now believe that ad-avoidance is less of a threat than first anticipated.

Evolving viewing patterns TV marketing body Thinkbox chief executive Tess Alps points to research conducted by the London Business School and funded jointly by Ofcom, ITV, Channel 4, Five and media agency Initiative. It reported in June that 80% of viewing in PVR homes is still live, with a further third of time-shifted viewing watched at normal speed during ad breaks.

Alps says: “When ads are fast-forwarded recall is 65%, provided the ad has been seen before. The absolute unmissable truth about PVRs is that great work gets viewed.”

Millward Brown associate director of global innovation Duncan Southgate believes that new advertising models will be developed to combat ad-skipping but says that change will be an evolution rather than revolution. “Even once a consumer has a new box in the living room it takes a while to evolve viewing patterns,” adds Southgate.

It seems that although the public’s appetite for digital storage devices looks set to grow exponentially, it will be as an added living room extra, rather than a change in TV viewing.

Catherine Turner

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