TV is changing: Freeview may now only have ten years left in its current form, with the main free-to-air broadcasters clubbing together to launch a replacement online service.
- Next year Ofcom is due to report back to the Government about the future of digital terrestrial TV (Freeview), where it will decide when it will pull the trigger.
- The seemingly inevitable winding down of Freeview comes despite a recent international agreement allocating frequencies for terrestrial TV, but removes the need of a hard cut-off in 2030.
- All the key dates to be aware of in the next decade
Notably, not one of the broadcasters has gone public to support the decision at the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-23) last month.
Notably, all the main free-to-air broadcasters are suffering from funding issues and are pushing those who don’t already use their online services to do so. Ultimately, this will allow them to drop expensive transmission contracts. In an online-only world, broadcasters get full analytics of all of their users and in the case of commercial broadcasters the ability to target registered users with personalised adverts.
When are the key dates and how might this affect what you see on screen?
RXTV starts 2024 with a timeline of all the key events of the next decade you need to know about:
Freeview replacement Freely launches
An exact launch date hasn’t been provided, but as major sporting events are often used to launch new TV services, the betting is that the first Freely TVs will be on sale in time for this summer’s Euro 2024 and Olympic Games.
Freely will target broadband-only homes and deliver all main channels via the internet.
Local TV licence renewal
Local channels, now mostly owned by either That’s TV (That’s Media Ltd) or Local TV (Local TV Ltd) are coming to the end of their original licence period. The first licence (for Grimsby’s local channel) expires in November 2025.
Decisions will be made on whether to extend their licences until 2034.
Local channels have broadly been a disappointment for those hoping for a more wide-ranging alternative to BBC and ITV regional news, with both of the largest holders of licences paying lip service to minimum local content requirements.
Just a few independent stations remain, including Sheffield Live, KMTV, Latest TV Brighton and Notts TV.
At the same time, the local TV multiplex licence also needs renewing. This ensures both the local channel and a small bundle of extra broadcast channels can continue to be delivered through Freeview in parts of the UK.
1st January 2025
ITV1/STV (Channel 3), Channel 4 and Channel 5 licence renewal
Ofcom is currently in the process of renewing the broadcast licences of the commercial public service broadcasters.
During the process, Ofcom will determine the levels of regional programmes to be shown on Channel 3 and how much news or children’s programmes should be shown on Channel 5 among other things.
New laws mean that ITV1, STV and Channel 5 could decide to make certain types of programme online-only. For example, ITV might want to remove weekend regional programmes from ITV1 and put them on ITVX instead.
BBC Four, CBBC, Radio 4 Extra to close. Or not.
Currently pencilled in for 2025, the closure of up to three BBC services – at least in their current form.
There has been talk of BBC Radio 4 Extra potentially being reprieved. From March 2024, BBC Radio 4 Extra will be the sole home of a number of former Radio 4 LW programmes.
BBC Four and CBBC would continue as online brands within the iPlayer if closure plans go ahead.
Ofcom reports back to Government on digital terrestrial TV (Freeview) future
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has tasked Ofcom to complete a review on digital terrestrial television by this point.
Although the recent World Radiocommunications Conference has confirmed terrestrial TV can remain on air across Europe, with ongoing primary access to frequencies, cash-strapped broadcasters aren’t campaigning to keep terrestrial services.
In preparation, Ofcom has recently completed a ‘call for evidence’ on the future of TV distribution.
2025 is the earliest point Ofcom can serve a five year notice period on Freeview multiplex licence holders if it’s decided terrestrial TV must close. That would result in terrestrial TV as we know it ending in 2030.
Without triggering the notice period, terrestrial TV could be allowed to continue on air until 2034.
BBC-B (PSB3) Freeview multiplex licence expires
The BBC has two Freeview multiplexes – one linked to the Royal Charter (BBC-A/PSB1) and is used for SD channels, and a second – BBC-B/PSB3 – for HD channels. In 2026, the BBC-B licence expires. But the BBC has indicated to the DCMS it won’t make a decision on renewing it yet.
Depending on Ofcom’s review of Freeview and the future of the BBC beyond the end of the Royal Charter, the closure of BBC-B could be used as an opportunity to close SD channels, migrating BBC HD channels to BBC-A.
31st December 2027
BBC Royal Charter expires
The Government and BBC are exploring new methods to fund the BBC. This will have an impact on the BBC’s future provision and whether it can afford a lengthy simulcast on both digital terrestrial and online platforms.
Earliest digital terrestrial TV/Freeview closure date
Ofcom can trigger a five year notice period ending terrestrial broadcasts as soon as 2030. Following the WRC-23 decision to allow European countries to give TV ongoing primary access to frequencies, a 2030 date seems less likely.
Current expiry for digital terrestrial multiplex licenses
The current preferred end date for digital terrestrial television, when multiplex licences expire.
By this point, viewers will need to migrate to internet based TV platforms.
The main free-to-air broadcasters hope that Freely will become the default way to access public service content. However, thanks to broadband subscriptions, there probably won’t be an entirely free way of receiving TV signals.
If Freeview does end in 2034, it will have served the UK for 32 years. That’s compared to the over 40 years of its predecessor 625 line analogue TV service.