Free View: That’s the way to do it!
The whole European telecoms, media and
technology scene remains depressed, and whilst this is great news
for Computer Shopper readers who continue to get ever more
performance for less money, some pundits suggest that as much as 30%
of the UK IT workforce is presently “resting”. From inside the
industry, it’s easy to take a gloomy view as company after company
continues to post gloomy trading news and more IT staff are let go
by the likes of telcos and financial institutions. So when there is
a bit of an uplifting tale to tell, it’s a good idea to see what has
lead to such a trend-bucking moment.
The success story is that FreeView (www.freeview.co.uk)
is ahead of expectations in terms of number of users (not
subscribers, remember, this costs nothing once the box has been
purchased) – so how did that happen..?
Remember the disaster of BSB (British Satellite
Broadcasting) and its assorted nonsense..? It all happened in 1990
(instigated by the government of the time) and the only thing I can
now recall is the Lenny Henry commercial wherein he declared “It’s
cool to be square” – a reference to the high-tech small size
squarial phased-array antenna.
And despite a formula of all gathering the
great and good with seriously respected businesspeople and advanced
technology, Rupert Murdoch’s very basic (and in its launch period,
free) Sky TV – cheap ugly dish; cheap and cheerful analogue STB,
trashed it out of sight. So in less than a year, Sky absorbed BSB to
become (somewhat perversely) BSkyB, and part of a face-saving deal
was to allow Murdoch to operate what is apparently a monopoly.
The broadcast pedants (mostly fossils from the
golden age of the BBC and IBA’s “not invented here” period) who
insisted that the picture quality of DMAC would easily overhaul the
basic PAL solution of Sky were proved to be irrelevant. Once again,
the bean counters, politicians and financiers were proved to be
devoid of any ability to discern any argument that required the
ability to connect technology with commercial reality. The idea that
BSB was only a 5 channel service didn’t seem to be relevant to a
generation whose only experience was 4 channel terrestrial TV. But
with the 50+ channel offering possible from Sky analogue, never mind
the digital potential, it was doomed from the outset.
And then, of course, Sky Sports bought all the
interesting live events from under the noses the dumbfounded “big
four” terrestrial broadcasters – especially the BBC.
So do the bankers, politicians and media chaps
ever learn? Apparently not. When On Digital launched, it seemed
obvious to some that this was a re-run of the BSB scenario. Once
again the primary driver was political pressure – this time from a
government that was keen to cut down on the valuable UHF bandwidth
used by terrestrial analogue TV in order that it could flog to the
telecoms industry for more mobile airspace.
By now Sky was well entrenched and had a 500+
channel proposition, so On Digital’s 50 channel bouquet was also
already off the pace by an order of magnitude. And although the big
mantra was “uses the antenna you have already got”, coverage was way
short of 100%, and users frequently required new antennas anyway.
If anything, the cobbled compromise that they
ended up broadcasting was a very effective commercial for the full
Sky service, so guess what? Even amongst the million or so punters
that signed up, subscriber churn approached 35%, and most migrated
to Sky Digital
ON Digital fumbled about a while with the ITV
companies who contrived it refusing to believe that they could have
got things so wrong after 50 years of a charmed existence with their
license to print money in the days of analogue terrestrial. So they
re-launched it as ITV Digital, wasting some £500m spent on branding
along the way.
ITVD realised that one of the strongest draws
in Sky’s portfolio of services was the sports coverage – so with an
absence of imagination and surfeit of arrogance, it agreed to pay a
silly amount of money to cover the Nationwide League. However,
there’s a basic law of the media universe that says if you can’t get
the best, then you are better off not trying to compete with the
second best. Instead, put some energy into “inventing” an
alternative that can be the best of a different genre. With gridiron
and baseball priced out of reach, the US has contrived various
alternative pantomimes and freak shows including basketball,
wrestling and beach volleyball; in the UK, Formula One, athletics
and Rugby have been engineered to become big draws – but in this
case, built on decent historic foundations.
So ITV digital went pop. The government called
on the BBC to rally a ragbag of services to cover its embarrassment
and try and keep the digital terrestrial hope alive.
And guess what? With essentially the same core
services as ITV Digital – but for free – Freeview has taken off, as
the punters seem quite happy to pay a one-off fee of £100 to get
BBC3, ITV2 and one “all new” general entertainment service – FTV.
How can this experience be usefully leveraged?
Well, satellite bandwidth costs its broadcasters about £100k per
megabit per year and reaches a potential 400 million European
audience; FreeView is charging £1m per megabit and is limited to 40
million brits. So how about a 500 channel version of FreeView on
Brace yourself, Rupert.