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Freeview MD: 'Gloves are off after digital switchover' - Interview

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Freeview managing director Ilse Howling has issued a warning to rival digital TV services in the UK, saying that the "gloves are off" after the digital switchover completes next year.

There has been suggestion that Freeview will gradually fade away as a platform brand once the UK switches permanently from analogue to digital TV in 2012, but Howling is of a different opinion.

In an interview with Digital Spy, she said that the digital terrestrial television (DTT) service will be in a sense liberated by the end of the switchover, freed up to provide subscription-free competition to the pay-TV operators Sky and Virgin Media.

"We will be letting people know that there is this great, free national treasure available, and we will show them the TV services that they can access without subscription," said Howling.

Howling was involved in the early conception work for Freeview while at the BBC, and she admits that no-one expected the "amazing growth" that has transpired in the platform's nine-year life (Freeview's ninth birthday is this Sunday).

The DTT platform is now on 10.2m main sets in UK homes, and 18m sets in total. Freeview HD has passed 3m product sales since the high definition TV service commercially launched in spring 2010.

Freeview is a brand that stands for the "horizontal market", Howling explained, providing an umbrella for a range of different products, including integrated TVs, set top boxes and digital video recorders, produced by the commercial market.

Due to the strength of Freeview and the solid growth of satellite equivalent Freesat, the UK is now roughly split in half - 50% taking a free-to-air service and 50% opting for pay-TV.

However, the market is still evolving because not all homes have made the switch from analogue to digital. Official estimates say there are around 1.4m homes still receiving analogue TV, but due to self-conversion to services like cable and satellite, this is really expected to only be around 700,000.

Freeview has performed very strongly in conversion rates of analogue homes in the UK, taking as much as 70% of the switchover homes in the STV Central region of Scotland.

Television and remote
But with the digital switchover due to reach completion in October 2012 (when Freeview will be at near universal UK coverage), Howling feels that the dynamic will change from attracting customers new to digital TV, to demonstrating the benefits of your platform.

There are around 700,000 analogue homes still "up for grabs", after which it will be a matter of competing for homes that have already made a choice in digital television.

Howling noted that customers intending to change their TV service are motivated firstly by cost, but then it's about the availability of HD channels/content and video on-demand.

Freeview, as a subscription-free offering, excels on the first point, but falls behind Sky and Virgin Media on the latter two standings, as both pay-TV firms have tens of HD networks on offer and boast large VOD libraries.

However, Howling noted that Freeview's four HD networks (with Channel 5 HD rumoured for launch in April 2012) account for virtually all the HD programmes people actually watch (barring sport), while various manufacturers of TVs with Freeview built-in are now offering services over an internet connection, including catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer.

But there is another competitor on the horizon that could further change the dynamic. YouView, previously known as Project Canvas, is an IPTV joint venture that aims to offer an upgrade to Freeview and Freesat customers to access video on-demand and internet services.

The platform, backed by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, BT, TalkTalk and transmission firm Arqiva, has suffered various delays due to regulatory challenges, but is now expected to launch in the first half of 2012.

Howling, like others, expects YouView to be a set top box product delivering the core Freeview and Freesat channels (including HD), along with services such as YouTube and ITV Player.

iPhone and Android Freeview App
She said that Freeview "welcomes another free competitor", and expressed her belief that the two brands will be able to happily co-exist, noting that "every YouView home is a Freeview home".

The end of the switchover is likely to intensify the fight for digital TV customers, similarly to the way the mobile and broadband markets have developed, and Howling feels that Freeview is fully equipped to provide strong competition for the giants of pay-TV.

Also in the interview, Howling discussed the recently launched Freeview TV Guide app for Apple's iPad, which features an interactive version of the electronic programme guide, powered by metadata from Red Bee Media's TV Genius.

She confirmed that the company is working on having direct links to live programming, meaning anyone clicking on a programme on the app would go straight through to a live stream service.

Freeview is also working on a remote record feature for the app to enable users to set recordings on Freeview+, similarly to the apps already available for Sky+ and Virgin Media's TiVo service.

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