The return of Love Island on ITV2 has generated some complaints that the picture quality on Freeview isn’t that great.
The channel is one of many to only broadcast in standard definition on Freeview. So why, in 2022, is that still the case? And why is it getting worse?
Pay TV exclusivity
High Definition TV was once a premium service and pay TV operators Sky and Virgin Media ensured many HD channels were exclusive to pay TV.
ITV2, ITV3, E4, Film4 and 5Action are among those channels that broadcast a free-to-air standard definition version and a paid-for HD version thanks to such deals.
As long as such exclusive deals are in place between broadcasters and platform operators, Freeview (and also Freesat) users will only get the standard definition copy.
As more of us install TVs with bigger screens, the worse the problem gets: SD on a bigger screen stretches a low resolution image onto a bigger canvas.
But broadcasters are keen to use their HD channels as a bargaining tool to secure better carriage deals with Sky and Virgin Media because of a second reason: it’s unlikely there will be any space on Freeview for any more HD channels any time soon.
One HD channel can easily take up the bandwidth used by three standard definition channels. From the end of June 2022, there will only be enough room on Freeview to broadcast nine HD channels, of which two will timeshare. To create more space, there would have to be a major reorganisation of Freeview.
But what is happening is that capacity previously available for Freeview HD channels is being reduced. Frequencies previously used for terrestrial TV were auctioned for 5G services. BBC News HD, Quest HD and QVC HD will stop broadcasting on Freeview at the end of the month: there isn’t enough space to broadcast services in both SD and HD.
Unlike in some other countries, the UK has never had a coherent plan to fully migrate terrestrial TV from standard to high definition broadcasting. This has left viewers still heavily reliant on standard definition feeds on Freeview, with resolutions ranging between 544×576 and 720×576.
With the UK now behind on that step in that development, broadcasters now seek to leapfrog to the next step: streaming.
They’re investing in improvements to their streaming portals that will see viewers being able to enjoy higher quality streams. The BBC iPlayer already offers high quality streams and even some programmes in UHD. But progress among commercial broadcasters has been slow. Both the ITV Hub and All4 receive frequent complaints about picture quality. ITV is currently preparing to re-launch its streaming service as ITVX and it’s expected it will offer better streaming quality.
In a nutshell
Channels like ITV2 aren’t available in HD on Freeview because…
a) the HD versions are locked in to long-term carriage deals with pay TV operators and
b) There isn’t enough capacity on Freeview for them without a proper plan to switch off standard definition TV.
Aidan Smith, editor, RXTV