Digital Life

With FreeviewPlus there are not enough hours in the day for all the new TV-watching options

Patience is starting to pay off for FreeviewPlus as audiences work out how best to use its many services.

After a tumultuous first year, Australia's FreeviewPlus catch-up TV service is finding its feet. It has been 12 months since SBS jumped the gun and launched Australia's first FreeviewPlus app – designed to stream shows you've missed to the latest generation of internet-enabled smart TVs. The cross-network catch-up TV service is gradually finding its way into more Australian homes, but tensions remain high between the networks and with the TV makers.

FreeviewPlus is a collection of six smart-TV apps, one for each of the five main free-to-air networks and a sixth app supplying a cross-network onscreen TV guide. You can launch the apps with a single button press, then scroll back through the guide to find shows you've missed and watch them streamed from the internet.

Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Illustration: Michael Mucci. 

Designed to stave off competition from Foxtel and subscription services such as Netflix, FreeviewPlus is the only service to offer free catch-up TV from all five main networks. You won't find every show on television but the catch-up library is growing, from local productions MasterChef and Home and Away to foreign offerings Homeland and The Big Bang Theory.

SBS recently made headlines by withdrawing from the Freeview consortium, but talk of banishing the network from the FreeviewPlus onscreen guide has not come to pass. Despite reported threats, it's not possible for Freeview to disable the SBS FreeviewPlus app or pull the network from the airwaves.

Negotiations continue to bring SBS back into the fold but, even allowing for this conflict, FreeviewPlus is a rare show of solidarity between Australia's ever-squabbling free-to-air broadcasters. Yet despite their efforts, FreeviewPlus is still only available in five per cent of Australian homes. At the official launch last September, ten weeks after SBS jumped the gun, Freeview chief executive Liz Ross predict that FreeviewPlus would be in 10 per cent of homes by this September – leaving the service only two months to make up a lot of ground.

The fault doesn't lie with the technology. FreeviewPlus is based on the Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV (HbbTV) smart-TV standard, which is taking off in Europe and is about to launch in New Zealand. Australia's FreeviewPlus deployment had teething problems, and was delayed several times, but it has won praise overseas,  winning Best Enhanced TV Service at the International Interactive TV Awards in Paris. 

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So what's holding back FreeviewPlus? In part, it's hampered by Australia's television networks being more interested in spruiking their new subscription video services, launched to compete with local pioneer Quickflix and foreign raider Netflix.

This year the Nine Network has teamed with Fairfax Media (publisher of this newspaper) to launch subscription video service Stan. Meanwhile, Seven has partnered with Foxtel to back Presto. Foxtel recently bought a slice of the Ten Network, raising the possibility of Ten throwing in its lot  with Presto. These new streaming services are gradually coming to smart TVs and other home entertainment devices.

The subscription TV splurge might be pushing FreeviewPlus out of the headlines, but most of the blame for its slow take-up lies with Freeview's heavy-handed negotiations with the TV makers. It's recently changed tack in an effort to get FreeviewPlus into more Australian homes, but it may be too little, too late.

HbbTV is an open standard that can be built into any internet-enabled television, video recorder or set-top box. Freeview can't stop manufacturers offering the FreeviewPlus apps, but if they want to display the official FreeviewPlus logo they must abide by Freeview's rules regarding ad-skipping and fast-forward speeds. There's also a FreeviewPlus certification process to ensure the apps behave as expected.

A small market like Australia doesn't have a lot of negotiating power when it comes to dealing with international home entertainment giants, so many chose to ignore FreeviewPlus certification rather than jump through Freeview's hoops. At the launch last year only a handful of televisions from Sony and LG carried the FreeviewPlus logo. Minor players Hitachi and Bauhn came on board this year, with Samsung recently joining too.

Panasonic was expected to be a high-profile FreeviewPlus launch partner but it failed to strike a deal with Freeview. That hasn't stopped Panasonic releasing HbbTV-compatible televisions supporting all the new apps. You just won't see FreeviewPlus written anywhere on the box, not until Panasonic and Freeview settle their differences.

Meanwhile, Freeview's nemesis IceTV is adding HbbTV to its new Skippa personal video recorder, which is designed to automatically skip the ad breaks – ensuring it will never get the official FreeviewPlus stamp of approval.

Until now, you've needed to buy an expensive new smart TV to get a FreeviewPlus-certified device. The barrier to entry recently dropped with the launch of DishTV's $149 aerialBox T2100 – Australia's first FreeviewPlus-certified digital set-top box. DishTV's dual-tuner aerialbox T2200 personal video recorder will soon hit the shelves, relying on the FreeviewPlus guide to schedule recordings.

Freeview is working with Humax, Topfield, Altech and others to launch more FreeviewPlus-compatible PVRs in the next few months. To win over more manufacturers, it has relaxed its restrictions on the skip button, from a minimum of 10 minutes to only three minutes. This means viewers can skip around seven advertisements with a single tap.

While not endorsing the 30-second skip feature offered by some PVRs, the change is still a significant back-down by Freeview, which has stuck to its guns for seven years on the issue of ad-skipping.

In theory, this new generation of FreeviewPlus-compatible recorders should be some of Australia's most reliable PVRs. FreeviewPlus polishes the hotchpotch program guide embedded in the broadcast signal by the networks – standardising program titles and including to-the-minute accurate start times, which are updated every few hours. Compatible recorders can also add "post-padding" to allow for late starts, as well as check extra data embedded in the broadcast signal.

But in reality the new FreeviewPlus recorders can still leave you in the lurch, because the networks deliberately ignore their own schedules in an effort to thwart their rivals. Here, the broadcasters still show their true colours – putting network rivalry ahead of viewers. Treating loyal free-to-air viewers with contempt seems like a short-sighted strategy when you're trying to win their attention away from pay TV and the internet.