UK's Freeview On Course to Overtake BSkyB

18 November 2004

News Corporation-controlled British multichannel satellite TV monopoly BSkyB has not felt the hot breath of credible competition on its neck for many a year.

Dominating the UK digital pay-TV market with over 7.4 million subscribers (as at 30 September), it commands double the aggregated TV customer base of cable rivals NTL and Telewest. So BSkyB might be forgiven a touch of complacency.

Until now.

Roaring up like a Porsche in the rearview mirror of a Ford is dear old Auntie BBC, whose Freeview digital platform could, according to some pundits, overtake the NewsCorp giant by Christmas 2005.

As its name implies, no subscription is required to receive Freeview. The sole outlay is a small digibox currently retailing at around £50 ($92.72; €71.44). This offers free access to over thirty channels plus many digital radio stations.

Launched in October 2002, two million UK homes availed themselves of the service within the first fourteen months. Since when growth has been exponential: retailers and manufacturers of digiboxes - of which there are more than a score of brands - predict that sales in 2003 will hit 3m, continuing through 2005 to overtake Sky with 8m plus.

The BBC is not crowing in public about the success of its initiative. But David Chance is over the moon and shouting it from the rooftops.

Chance, who runs Top Up TV, a service offering Freeview customers ten extra channels for a monthly fee of £7.99 believes his product will "comfortably" meet its break-even target of 250,000 customers within two years of launch.

But although his service rides on the back of the BBC initiative, Chance - a non-executive director of ITV and former BSkyB deputy chief executive - is not averse to sniping at his benefactor for failing to insist that its digiboxes come ready-equipped with a card reader to enable commercial add-ons like Top Up TV.

He claims the BBC's oversight is causing growing frustration among consumers who have bought standard boxes incompatible with his subscription product - an omission alleged by former BBC director general Greg Dyke (in his recent book) to be a deliberate move on the corporation's part to restrain the ravening hordes of pay-TV.

"The majority of people who call up and can't get it are very frustrated," avers Chance. "They were never told the Freeview box they were buying could not receive all the services on the DTT [digital terrestrial television] platform.

"The focus of their frustration is directed at the BBC. They are really pissed off at the Beeb because it is the BBC's cross-promotional activities that are really driving the take-up of Freeview," he said.

Some believe Chance is strangely lacking in gratitude to the BBC for its investment of license-payers' money in a platform that provides him with an opportunity to make a killing.

Blow, blow thou winter wind ...

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff