Freeview is the UK's biggest television platform and has provided a vital and subscription free service for millions of homes going through the recent analogue TV switchoff - but with Britain now adjusting to a digital world, the service is aware of growing pressure from pay TV alternatives.
TechRadar caught up with two of Freeview's most senior figures, Managing Director Ilse Howling and Marketing Director Guy North to talk about a new policy of coaxing people away from pay TV giants like Sky and Virgin.
TechRadar: Can you tell us a bit about Freeview and what it stands for?
Ilse Howling: What we are about is providing high quality, free TV. All our focus this year is going to be on value. Freeview's vision is really simple: it's about continuing to give consumers vibrant, high quality, free television and we won't compromise on that principle. It's something that has been our raison d'etre since the start of Freeview.
Let's not forget there were a lot of doomsayers about Freeview when we started, saying this would be the end of free television. But I think that threat to free television is even more pressing than it was 10 years ago. With pay TV companies no longer having analogue companies to chip away at, I think it puts Freeview homes right in their line of sight as those that want to upgrade and take across into pay.
Freeview today has 19.1 million homes: that makes us the biggest television platform in the UK, and we see ourselves as the champions of the mainstream viewer offering what viewers want to watch, and how they want to watch it. This is a lovely statistic - we provide over 95 per cent of the nation's most-watched programmes, and all of them are there subs free.
TR: Just focusing on your 95 per cent point, there's a couple of things that need to be raised about that. First, presumably that figure was significantly higher 10 years ago, so it's falling; and secondly, isn't it inevitable that something available [for free] to a larger audience gets more views? If you asked people what they wanted to watch rather than what they are watching it would be completely different.
Guy North: A couple of things on that, the clarification is that the figure is taken from BARB January to June figures from last year and would have been higher than 95 per cent if we hadn't striped out one-off programmes like the Jubilee because we felt that was unfair. So actually the figure would possibly be higher than that.,
Yes, if you look ten years ago it would be higher than that, but there isn't much further you can go. The key fact is where we are now, in a marketplace with very strong pay TV providers, that [95 per cent] fact is pretty stunning from a consumer point of view. So much is available free from subscription.
TR: But that second point about they are most viewed BECAUSE they are available for nothing. If you take something like Mad Men - if that were still on terrestrial [for free] it would be one of the most watched programmes, but because it's on pay its audience is inevitably limited. That 95 per cent is because they are widely available.
GN: True. It is because it's available, and that's what's happening. That's people's actual behaviour.
IH: If I can jump in here as well, If you look at what you are paying for if you are paying a subscription, and think of how high the average revenue per home is across pay TV operators, and then you think about what are most watched programmes. So then obviously you take out sport - because if you are really into sport then you are likely to go for a pay TV package - and then you look at the dramas coming in, things like Mad Dogs and Game of Thrones,and you contrast if you were to buy the DVD and get the box set; but actually paying a subscription to get [those shows], I'm not sure it stacks up to value.
TR: What message do you want to take to those people with pay TV who you think should plump for Freeview instead?
IH: I think what we want most is to get across to people that Freeview has amazing value, not only amazing value in its programmes but amazing value with its functionality. [We want to promote] those two factors combined: 95 per cent of the most watched programmes [are] available for free on Freeview, but also Freeview HD and Freeview+. So many people don't know that's available, and that's a really big theme for us this year.
TR: A lot of the talk today has been around Sky. Is that the competitor you believe you can chip away at?
IH: I wouldn't name one particular company over another. It's about whatever the pay TV offer is. [Pay TV] may well turn out to be what somebody wants, but I would encourage them to really look at it and what it gives - if that's what you want then great, but if it isn't then I hope they realise that by comparison Freeview is much better value. I want people to look again at Freeview and understand what we have to offer.
TR: You're up against some huge companies with big marketing budgets, how can you compete?
IH: I would say look at what Freeview has to offer you. Lots of people have Freeview and it's just there. They haven't necessarily realised the richness of what it has to offer. If they are still thinking about normal television back in the "old world" - maybe they had digital from another provider, for instance - they should realise the richness of Freeview. We have over 70 TV channels plus radio channels and interactive services - it's a really rich offer. So if you have got Freeview already, think about upgrading to Freeview + or Freeview +HD. If you have pay TV and are starting to question whether it is what you want, then think about us.
TR: What are your thoughts on YouView, which is offering IPTV services and has been called a competitor to Freeview?
IH: If you think of all the homes in the country, some and more advances and have a greater appetite for things like connected TV, YouView or thorugh an iPad. It's a large group but it's still a minority who are interested. But for the mass mainstream of viewers, I think [YouView] has a long way to come.
We're really interested in allowing consumers to get into the programmes that they love faster. And [through the internet ] is a really good way of doing that. But nonetheless, it's back to the point I was making about linear television and its extraordinary resilience and longevity. When you look at how most people in this country are watching, despite the fact that all those catchup services are starting to become available, actually most are watching live and thorough the broadcast signal to their own televisions.
TR: This feels like a bold step into going directly after pay TV customers...
GN: It's quite a departure for us. It's a bit more punchy and a bit more aggressive than what we have done before, but that feels right for us, for where the market is and also the mood of the nation. If we are positioning ourselves as being the consumer champion, it's right we make sure all consumers have information they need to make the right decision for them. We are confident that by pointing out the key facts within the advert, we will help them make that decision.
The questions and answers were pooled from a one-to-one interview with Ilse Howling and a journalist's round-table event with Ms Howling and Graham North on the same day.