The UK’s Freesat digital television service provider begins its television advertising campaign today for its new hybrid broadband/broadcast TV service, “Freetime”. We’re supposed to write this as <free time> so don’t blame me if it looks like my fingers have slipped on the keyboard.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been using the newly launched <free time> service for the past couple of weeks, courtesy of a new Humax <free time> HDR-1000S set-top box. The “hybrid” part means that the Freesat EPG integrates the OTT catch-up TV services from providers like the BBC, ITV and (coming shortly) Channel 4 and Five. In practice this means that the user can search backwards in time through the EPG, find a programme which was broadcast (in that traditional, legacy sense of the word) at some previous point, select the programme and watch it, more or less instantly.
From an end user perspective this should mean that the EPG becomes a gateway to online TV apps and services without the user even having to think about it. And in practice <free time> comes pretty close to delivering on that promise. At the moment only the BBC and ITV channels can make use of the hybrid capabilities; in those cases the user simply selects the left cursor on the remote control to surf backwards through the programme schedule. Selecting a programme which is available online (which the vast majority appear to be) takes the viewer automatically to the online player app, and to the specific show selected, and starts the show playing. There are inevitably a few pauses along the way, since however fast the broadband connection there is a fair amount of processing going on. But typically I have found that shows start within 30 seconds or so. That’s not bad when you appreciate what technology is involved in getting this to work, although perhaps typical users might wonder initially whether there is a problem with the service. Humax might want to think about showing some sort of “please wait” message while all this is going on.
Freesat is also planning to launch second screen apps to allow remote EPG control and content shifting. That's something I'm really looking forward to.
All in all, it’s an impressive effort and watching catch-up TV soon becomes second nature to watching regular live broadcast TV channels using the EPG. Unfortunately I have to report a couple of issues. Initially my ITV Player was simply failing to load, although this now appears to have been resolved. Secondly, I have found that the box does not appear to be caching enough content to allow for smooth playback. My set-top box is connected to a 4Mbps broadband connection and other devices using the same connection successfully stream both SD and HD content from the BBC’s iPlayer. Eventually I found a a solution: pausing the catch-up show for 30 seconds or so appears to load the buffer sufficiently that it then plays smoothly without further interruption. I have asked Humax for feedback and am awaiting comment.
The other aspect to <free time> is the ability to market television shows via the EPG. The “Don’t Miss” feature essentially advertises TV shows already broadcast and allows the viewer to watch them instantly. I have found this surprisingly compelling, given that I am not particularly open to searching for TV shows I am not familiar with. Perhaps the novelty factor will wear off, but this is potentially a rich seam of innovation and source of additional eyeballs which the BBC and other free-to-air broadcasters will want to mine.
According to Strategy Analytics research, opposition to pay TV has grown significantly in the UK in the past two years. We’ve seen a 13% net rise in the number of people who believe all TV should be free and supported by advertising or public funding. <free time> will go some way to ensuring that free digital satellite TV remains competitive against hybrid service offerings from Sky, Virgin Media and BT.
Finally, if you’re thinking this all sounds eerily familiar, you probably have in mind the Youview service from Freeview, the rival UK digital terrestrial TV platform, which does pretty much the same things, albeit using a very different technical platform. But Iwon’t bore you with those issues today, strategically significant as they are. Just sit back, select your show and enjoy. TV schedules just entered the digital age.
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