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Redefining UK, Free and Television

Having spent Wednesday of last week at the Digital Television Group New Horizons summit, I need to redefine what the scope of this website is. What constitutes television, what counts as free television and how do people view the United Kingdom?

UK from space  Photograph: NASA
UK from space Photograph: NASA
published on UK Free TV

Digital beginnings

My professional interests in computers, digital networks and television found me working for BT Broadcast Services.   The job supplied stacks of digital technical challenges as well as travelling around the whole of the UK to add digital upgrades to ITV studios in every big city. 

In the wake of the considerable business failure that was “ITV Digital” (originally, ONdigital), I started this website to nudge the fledgling replacement Freeview in the right direction.  It was clear to me what was needed: free technical support for Freeview.  It was also clear as to what “Free TV” was:  it was telly you could watch without subscribing.  At the time this meant avoiding analogue or digital Sky and the cable TV companies.

 

Free is a wonderful word

The English language is full of words with mixed meanings.  This has happened because the English is a magpie language: words and their meanings have been adopted over time from other languages, traditions or uses.

This makes marketing in English a linguistic pleasure: playful word associations and puns can skilfully convey the products and services that a business has to offer.

“Free” is a perfect word in that respect.   It has primary meanings that appeal to the best of humanity (generous, unconstrained, frank, without obligation).  People let out of prison or slavery are free.     Unblocked drains run free.   Unused parking spaces are free.  Free is also to get rid of something that confines or oppresses. And of course it also means without payment.

Freeview (and later, Freesat) derived their names from “free to air”, which was the way that all television and radio used to be.  

Of course, there is a catch.   No business is going to survive and prosper without being supplied with money, so the idea of something “free” has a hidden meaning:

  • A Freephone telephone number is one where the caller is not charged.  However, the businesses being called must pay, and will eventually charge the caller when they buy a product or service.
  • The Sky television’s free dish and box offer sounded very generous but was only available when the new customer had provided the company with direct debit access to their bank account.  
  • Facebook (for example) is free to use, but they sell what they believe they know about you to advertisers.  This means that “you are the product”. 

With Freeview and Freesat, there is also a catch:

  • Freeview and Freesat need no subscription and no-direct debit, but to use it you must buy your own equipment.
  • Whatever you watch with Freeview or Freesat, you are legally obligated to have a £154 television licence for the household.
  • For most of non-BBC stuff to watch on Freeview or Freesat, the channels broadcast about 24 thirty-second “spot” adverts per hour.  Some considerable effort goes into providing to the advertisers that people were watching them.  The count of “eyeballs” being the product sold here.
  •  Freeview has also always had shopping channels.  These are where there is no news, sport or entertainment to draw in eyeballs, just products for sale.

 

What is television?

The concept of television has evolved over the years.  The original technologies meant that television was a live radio service, but with pictures.  Over time features were added to television:

  • Outside (the studio) live broadcasts
  • Pre-recording and pre-prepared shows (with repeats)
  • Colour, better resolution pictures
  • (Digital) Stereo sound and (digital) subtitles
  • Digital capacity improvements
  • Themed services (rather than generalised, mixed output)
  • Subscription services
  • Online access to live channels and catch-up content
  • High definition and UHD

This means that “television” must encompass online video services like YouTube, BBC iPlayer, All4 and so on.   In practice it doesn’t include one-to-one video services like Skype. 

The only other question left is really about production costs: is there a distinction between proper telly (which can cost £100,000 an hour of output to make) and self-funded, home-made faire? 

 

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The original purpose of this site was to cover the broadcast television services that I was familiar with.   I had been an avid reader of cast-off issues of the BBC’s Arial newspaper as a youngster, and later had worked with the ITV network (as it was then) as well as Channel 4.  I had also visited the BskyB offices many times, as well as satellite uplink stations (London, Madley).

The site has always recognised that the consumers of UK television may be outside the United Kingdom. Indeed, quite a lot of this site was written outside the UK.   By use of various Astra satellites and the internet, I have worked for extended periods from Leuven (Belgium), Crete and Kos (Greek Islands), Barcelona (Spain), Cascais (Portugal).  I have also been around France, Netherlands, Germany, Italy whilst researching UK television.

 

 

 

 



All questions
Why are some channels free on Freeview but paid-for on satellite?1
Are digital TV pictures better?2
How much less interference is there on digital TV?3
I currently have an NTL cable line for TV. Will I be able to use this to receive4
Can I use a ex-Sky box to receive aerial Freeview?5
In this section
TV: Separating content from delivery1

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