Charles Arthur On Technology

The revolution in your front room: before long, times and channels will stop mattering. And ads will just be those things you skip past
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The Independent Online

If you live in London and have Freeview, the free digital TV service, you may have noticed that until last Wednesday, the onscreen programme schedule would show you just the present programme and the next one. Now, it should show you everything for the next week, meaning that you can plan what you're going to watch - and, as we'll see, record - much further into the future than ever before.

If you live in London and have Freeview, the free digital TV service, you may have noticed that until last Wednesday, the onscreen programme schedule would show you just the present programme and the next one. Now, it should show you everything for the next week, meaning that you can plan what you're going to watch - and, as we'll see, record - much further into the future than ever before.

The arrival of this free "EPG" (electronic program guide) in the London area follows months of testing, which, while agonising for those aiming to sell products that take advantage of it, could be the spark for a revolution in how we watch TV in the future: unconstrained by TV schedules and "what's on now", and consigning adverts to the past.

More than half of British homes have Freeview or other digital TV. But until now, navigating through the dozens of channels has been a pain and left most people envious of BSkyB's service, which has had an eight-day EPG service since 2002.

It's also been a source of constant frustration for those wishing to sell hard disk-based personal video recorders (PVRs), which can record a digital TV signal directly on to disk and play it back at once, or pause it, or play back after a pause while recording the up-to-date signal. The latter two are tricks your conventional videotape recorder could never do; and that's why PVRs are the coming thing this Christmas.

Just as BSkyB has been seeing huge take-up of its Sky+ PVR system to its subscribers, so makers of other PVRs expect the arrival of the Freeview EPG in London - and probably by summer around the country - to be the key to take-up.

"It's excellent news," says Dale Heathcote, the commercial director of Humax, a Korean company that has recently moved into the PVR market. "This starts to position Freeview as a genuine alternative to BSkyB." Indeed, it puts the BBC (which has led the technical work on the development of the Freeview EPG) head to head with BSkyB, which presently dominates the UK market for PVRs, having sold more than 300,000 of its Sky+ boxes.

"Once you've used one or seen a friend's, it's easy to understand," says Ian Fogg, an analyst at Jupiter Research in London. "In the past few years we've seen people move at an incredible pace to DVDs. But I think PVRs are the better option."

Jupiter Research forecasts that by next year, nearly one in 15 homes will have one - more than double the number today. Mr Heathcote agrees: "We think [PVRs] will be huge this Christmas," he says. The reason is that when you marry an "eight-day" EPG (as the Freeview and Sky ones are) to a PVR, you create the chance for one-touch recording and playback: navigate to the program you want to record, then press a button that tells the PVR to record it. No fiddling with VideoPlus numbers; no worrying that you'll have set the wrong channel. Before long, channels stop mattering, and with enough programmes stored, the time that they're on doesn't matter either. And adverts simply become those things you skip past.

Getting the Freeview EPG ready for London has not been without problems. The BBC has been testing the service for the past six months in the Wenvoe Valley in Wales, because it has a sparse population who would be unlikely to be annoyed by alterations in the EPG - and who also tend to point their aerials towards English transmitters across the river Severn, rather than the Welsh transmitter from which the EPG was broadcast.

Humax had a team testing its products in offices dotted around Wenvoe, replicating the effect of receiving a signal at the bottom of a 50-storey block of flats. "The really big problem all the way through has been finding out how fast the data is sent," says Tha Wah, a Humax engineer.

Other manufacturers such as Sony, Panasonic and Thomson also used those signals for tests. And now, the consortium running Freeview is readying its timetable for a nationwide launch, which PVR makers see as the chance for huge sales.

"People find that PVRs allied to a seven-day EPG are really compelling," says Fogg. "Anybody who has used a Sky+ or TiVo or similar product is rapidly sold on it. For viewers, the biggest benefit is that because you don't have to find a blank bit of tape to record on to, you're likely to do more timeshifting [in which they record a program to watch later]."

He says that advertisers are already considering how to tackle the problem of people fast-forwarding through adverts. "On Sky, they emphasise the interactive element, with buttons you can press to get something special. But on Freeview, there's no connection back to the phone line. That's a real challenge for the broadcasters." One solution is more sponsorship of programs, as well as product placement, where TV shows use particular items. But the regulator Ofcom may clamp down on the latter.

One undoubted loser will be the traditional VCR. "We see that falling off pretty fast," says Fogg. "VHS is dead." In fact, for most people the latter statement already seems to be the case. Figures released last week by the British Video Association showed that DVDs now make up 70 per cent of pre-recorded "video" sales; "videotape only survives in niche markets, like children's and niche sports," says Lavinia Carey, the director-general of the BVA.

She wouldn't guess when we'll see the end of VHS. But the arrival of eight-day planning on Freeview does suggest that this is the year we will say hello EPG, goodbye video.

network@independent.co.uk

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