Last night in Darling Harbour, Freeview showcased new EPG set-top-boxes and PVRs that will carry the new Electronic Program Guide (EPG). The CEO of Freeview, Robin Parkes, said:
”The development, promotion and launch of Freeview‘s EPG is truly an historical moment in Australian television. Over the past 18 months, we‘ve gone from just five channels, to a brand new digital environment where viewers in metropolitan areas are able to access 16 channels. Now we‘re able to launch an electronic program guide to make navigating through the amazing array of content even easier for viewers”.
The launch of the EPG raises the question as to exactly what the purpose of Freeview is.
From my perspective, Freeview was borne out a mixture of concern and apathy about digital television. The networks figured they should do something at some point, but there was very little forward momentum in wanting to establish a multi-channel digital future. It was an uncertain future that would simply cause fragmentation of the audience. The only perceived benefit would be to chip away at the audience embracing subscription television services, which would be a negative move as some of the FTA channels had subscription television investment.
The solution was Freeview. A body that would manage promotion of the new platform while the networks organised…something. As the networks came to see value in multi-channeling, they launched newly branded channels. As competition increased, the value of a joint body was lessened. What would be the benefit of sharing content with a competitor for a stake in revenue? In television, the game is to get a bigger slice of the pie.
And so, after several years of confusing branding and promotion, Freeview have finally delivered a product/service of value to the marketplace. Consumers who buy a digital STB with the Freeview logo on it will now be able to access the new EPG.
Key features of the EPG include: Seven day on-screen program guide, CRID system (Content Reference Indicator) – allowing intuitive recording of shows (with PVRs), Program reminder functionality, Parental Lock system, One touch recording (with PVRs), the ability to watch and record different channels at the same time, to pause and rewind live TV (with PVRs) and to record a TV series using the ’series link‘ functionality (with PVRs). In other words, it does what most full-featured EPG’s should.
But, here’s the rub:
From what I understand, the new EPG is not backwards compatible on older Freeview devices, nor for devices that are not Freeview branded.
Digital television has achieved significant market penetration at this point (a recent report has it cited at 74%), driven largely through the launch of the multi-channels. By not releasing an EPG that is backwards compatible, Freeview, at best, will only be offering this service to 26% of the population, while advising the rest of the population to upgrade their STB’s/PVR’s to their new MHEG5 compliant STB’s. The only two outcomes of this are either confusion or anger from the marketplace.
For what its worth, I do believe that there is a place for an organization like Freeview to service the marketplace. Whether it’s Freeview, or a body like Free TV Australia, someone should be working on behalf of the networks to ensure that they are together able to offer a fully-functional EPG to all Australians that enables them to perform the same tasks that their competitors offer (including remote recording, a service that the Freeview EPG does not offer).
By way of my Beyonwiz PVR, I have been able to access the subscription-service Ice TV which serves as a fully-functional EPG that also enables me to program my PVR remotely via their website or through the app on my iPhone. There should be no need at all for Australian TV consumers to use a service like Ice TV. Freeview should be making the effort to integrate their industry-driven service a part of the consumers lives.
Freeview can offer a significant service to Australian television consumers, but as it stands, it could use a re-think.