Wednesday’s loss of nine channels is a sign of major changes ahead at Freesat, mirroring big changes to the way broadcasters plan to make their content available to viewers in the future.
Narrative Entertainment this morning suddenly pulled its nine channels from the platform, leaving Freesat with just three movie channels and two children’s channels left.
Later this year, Channel 4 will remove its five Box music channels from Freesat and other platforms, removing music from the platform.
It’s reflective of big changes to broadcasting coming up and satellite TV faces some major upheaval, as Freesat in its current form is eclipsed by Freely.
What’s changed at Freesat?
Freesat was taken over by Digital UK (now known as Everyone TV) in 2021. This meant that control of Freeview and Freesat were brought together under one roof.
At this point, development of Freesat as a platform in its own right effectively came to an end. Instead, Everyone TV, began development of a next generation platform. This was unveiled last year as ‘Freely’. This week, we received a first glimpse of the new platform.
Freely will start off with a combination of digital terrestrial, digital satellite and IP-streaming channels. In time, as digital terrestrial and satellite services close, broadcasters can seamlessly switch to IP-streaming. Freely TVs will automatically switch to an online feed.
The specs for Freely allow broadcasters to switch seamlessly switch viewers to an IP-feed long before the terrestrial/satellite feed closes, ensuring the steady reduction of viewers reliant on their aerial or dish.
From later this year, Freely devices will begin to take over from Freeview Play and Freesat devices in the shops, although legacy receivers will still be available for a time.
By the end of the decade, the satellites used by both Sky and Freesat will reach end of life. And broadcaster’s contracts to broadcast on those satellites come to an end. That means satellite TV in its current form could end much earlier than terrestrial TV, which is licensed to continue broadcasting until the mid 2030s.
By 2030, the number of homes able to access IP-streaming channels will reach a critical mass. Research commissioned by Everyone TV indicates IPTV only homes will exceed 50% by 2030. Homes with older Freesat receivers will begin to lose access to more channels. And Sky will complete migration of homes from satellite to Sky Stream.
Why are broadcasters already moving away from Freesat?
Broadcasters can save money by ditching traditional means of distributing their channels. Switching to IP-only pushes some of the cost of distributing content to internet service providers and indeed the consumer. It also allows broadcasters to put channels behind a registration wall, so they can commercially monetise user information.
While big channels like BBC One and ITV1 can still command large audiences via traditional platforms, the shift to streaming is already disproportionately affecting smaller and niche channels.
For some channels, the point at which broadcasting via traditional platforms is no longer commercially viable has already been reached. Former satellite channels like Insight TV and Horse & Country TV now continue solely as streaming channels on various online platforms.
For others, choices have to be made between whether to continue to broadcast on all traditional platforms or to drop some.
For example, a number of shopping channels have previously opted not to broadcast on Virgin Media due to the cost. And some broadcasters, although available on satellite, opt against the extra cost of inclusion on Freesat’s Electronic Programme Guide.
Compared to Sky’s customer base of around 10 million, Freesat currently reaches just over 2 million homes, according to Everyone TV. Therefore, the extra cost for a relatively few extra viewers doesn’t add up for some broadcasters.
How Freely shakes up free-to-air satellite TV
The imminent arrival of Freely arguably acts as a further disincentive to renew Freesat carriage or to sign up to Freesat in the first place. That’s because once Freely receivers are on the market, broadcasters will be able to reach satellite homes with IP-streaming channels.
Many smart TVs already have a satellite connection point at the back and contain a triple-tuner (terrestrial, satellite, cable or DVB-T/T2, S/S2 and C). In the UK, the satellite tuner and connection on some models is often undeclared or deactivated; very few offer both Freeview and Freesat.
With Freely, more smart TVs should be able to be sold in the UK with an EPG that supports satellite reception alongside IP-streaming. Any satellite household moving to a satellite-enabled Freely device will automatically receive streamed channels through their broadband connection alongside channels broadcast via satellite. And if that’s the case, then there’s no reason why especially smaller broadcasters, should pay for Freesat when their channels can be received via streaming. The case against paying extra for Freesat increases as more and more households upgrade to newer streaming-enabled devices.
However, the ongoing shift does pose an issue for viewers currently unable to benefit or afford full-fibre internet. This is especially the case in areas where the Freeview terrestrial signal does not supply the full set of channels and viewers have switched to satellite instead. A lot of work will need to take place between industry, government and regulators to ensure more viewers can benefit. In the meantime, these viewers are most at risk of losing channels before the infrastructure becomes available to them to reliably stream content instead.