EPG Row Threatens Pay-TV Launch on UK's Freeview

11 February 2004

The BBC has been accused of trying to kill off attempts to introduce a pay-TV element to UK digital TV platform Freeview.

A company called Top Up TV next month plans to offer a limited range of pay-TV channels on the free-to-air service. However, it has formally reported the BBC to communications watchdog Ofcom after the two sides failed to agree on where the paid-for channels should appear on Freeview's electronic programme guide.

Freeview -- which is backed by the BBC, BSkyB and transmission business Crown Castle -- launched in late 2002 to replace defunct digital terrestrial pay-TV venture ITV Digital. It offers 33 free-to-air channels to viewers who have bought a set-top box. Take-up has been rapid, and is now nearing the three million mark.

Top Up TV -- which recently poached Freeview's general manager Matthew Seaman as its head of marketing -- will offer ten extra channels for £7.99 ($14.95; €11.71) a month plus £20 installation fee. This is significantly cheaper than current pay-TV operators BSkyB, NTL and Telewest.

"There is a significant market, albeit niche, of people who can't afford the Sky channel packages but want more channel choice than Freeview offers," argues David Chance, who is heading the project with Ian West (both former BSkyB executives).

However, Top Up TV is warning it may have to delay its launch while it sorts out the EPG row with the BBC. The pay-TV venture wants its channels -- which include popular digital stations like E4, UK Gold and Discovery -- to be integrated among the free-to-air offerings, so they appear next to similar stations. This would have the benefit of highlighting the existence of these pay-TV channels as viewers scroll through the EPG.

The BBC, it is argued, was present at a meeting in September when this genre-based approach was agreed. However, Top Up TV claims the publicly funded broadcaster is now trying to banish all its channels to the lower reaches of the platform's EPG, on the basis that mixing free and paid-for content would confuse the simplicity of Freeview's offering.

The issue is vital if Top Up TV is to gain maximum prominence via the on-screen listings. And the service certainly needs all the publicity it can get, given that more than half of Freeview subscribers do not currently have a set-top box capable of taking the card through which the extra channels are received.

The pay-TV venture will initially target the several hundred thousand households accessing Freeview through their old ITV Digital boxes, as these are compatible with the necessary cards. It then plans to release upgraded equipment or extra devices for other Freeview homes.

Data sourced from: Multiple sources; additional content by WARC staff