Ilse Howling: Freeview hopes to score with high definition

Freeview and Freesat have together expanded the market for multi-channel TV in Britain. Nick Clark meets the women in charge of the rival platforms

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:22

England's football team will shortly head to South Africa, bearing the hopes of an expectant nation on their shoulders. Their World Cup performances will be followed particularly closely by Ilse Howling, the managing director of Freeview, who believes the success of the tournament – and possibly the national team – will help to drive the next generation of its services to a wider audience.

Ms Howling, who prefers Newsnight and legal drama Damages to the sight of Wayne Rooney kicking a football, said that the launch of Freeview's high-definition (HD) service in March was the most important day for the broadcaster since its foundation. "High definition is coming of age," she added. "It is going mass market for the first time."

Yesterday, staff from Freeview spent an "away day" at The Old Laundry, an offbeat business space in Marylebone, London. Ms Howling wanted to bring her 18-strong team closer together but also to map out the future of Freeview. At the moment, that future is in high definition, and this was helped by the release this month of the Freeview HD+ box, bringing together its high-definition programming with a personal video recorder. Freeview says it is still too early to provide official sales figures for its HD boxes, but demand has been strong.

But HD was not always seen as the future of digital terrestrial television. April marked the three-year anniversary of what Ms Howling calls being "properly in this job" after her return from maternity leave. "I expected we would all be gearing up for HD when I returned, yet at the time it was far from certain it would happen at all," she said. She added that that development of the technology behind Freeview HD – which offers three channels now but will rise to five in two years – was "genuinely a world first".

Freeview realised that customers wanted HD after seeing the popularity of the service offered to subscribers of the pay-TV giant British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB). Sky went HD in June 2006 but growth really soared towards the end of 2008. Ms Howling admitted: "When Freeview launched, Sky had blazed the trail for digital TV. Freeview was a fast follower."

She said the Freeview service was designed to "democratise and make free not just the digital programming but the functions that subscriber homes have traditionally paid for".

Freeview was officially launched in 2002, coincidentally on Ms Howling's birthday, as a digital terrestrial television platform. It was set up by BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle, the broadcast transmission company now known as Arqiva. ITV and Channel 4 joined four years later.

Ms Howling said: "Each of those five shareholders are getting value back from their investment in different ways. [Freeview] is pulling together a horizontal market of retailers, broadcasters and the stakeholders getting their channels to as many homes as possible."

Latest figures from the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom suggest that Freeview is now enjoyed in 18.6 million British homes, with people either buying its set-top boxes, or television sets with Freeview tuners already installed. Ms Howling said: "My mission is to be the champion of great, free, high-quality television and household ubiquity. As a nation we show no sign of changing our appetite for buying bigger and better TVs." By the time of digital switchover in 2012, 98 per cent of homes will be able to use Freeview.

She said the crucial decision, before Freeview's launch, was to make the service fully free, with no additional subscription channels alongside. "It was driving me slightly insane because I needed a decision on this," she added. "The evidence just wasn't clear at the time, but in the end we thought keeping it free would cut through consumer confusion."

Customers must buy a box but, once it is plugged in, there is no fee or contract. Ninety-nine of the 100 most-watched programmes are available on Freeview.

Ms Howling has advocated digital TV since her time at the BBC, where she was head of digital marketing. "It gives people a better use of available bandwidth. You can provide more channels at better quality and use the released spectrum for different services. This will help how UK Plc competes in a global environment. We absolutely have to invest in digital highways."

At Leeds University, she studied history and politics – The West Wing is now one of her favourite programmes. Her favourite periods included the origins of the Second World War and the Cold War and she remains fascinated by "the propaganda of that time and the role of broadcast media".

After working for an online start-up and Nynex, the cable company, she joined the BBC, where her influence on its digital strategy grew. It is perhaps also not surprising, given her time in communications roles, that Mad Men is another favourite show.

Miss Howling looks back at her time in TV so far like a historian. "Freeview, which has been a phenomenal success, has given me a ringside seat at some of the most interesting developments in broadcasting. When we launched it, we set out to change the landscape of broadcasting in this country, and we did it. I have a sense of observing the significance of those changes."

Given the impetus behind the last government's Digital Britain strategy, it seems unthinkable that there were serious doubts less than a decade ago about the switchover from analogue television. "There were serious questions over whether the whole country was going to go digital," Ms Howling said. "When Freeview launched. the switchover timetable was not set, only 39 per cent of the country had digital TV and growth had hit a plateau. Then ITV Digital collapsed."

In the end, opponents of digital TV were "like King Canute trying to hold back the tide", she added, saying that Britain was now a "world leader" in digital TV technology. The next step is to bring internet television into our living rooms. Freeview is especially keen on the potential of launching integrated set-top boxes, if the BBC Trust approves the joint web television venture, Project Canvas.

Now if England can only reach the World Cup final, football fans may be rushing to buy set-top boxes that will show every kick in high definition.

The companion that became a competitor

Emma Scott knows Ilse Howling well. They were both at the BBC and worked on the launch of Freeview. And now they find themselves running competing businesses.

Ms Scott is the managing director of Freesat, a free digital satellite TV provider. "It's a healthy competition between friends," she said. The companies, despite similar names and shareholders, are totally separate. "There's absolutely no collaboration, although we can be complementary," Ms Scott said.

Freesat launched in March 2008, after several setbacks, and was backed by the BBC and ITV. It was originally thought of as a "fill-in for the areas Freeview could not reach," Ms Scott said, but is now competing directly for customers. The group hit one million sales in January, which was 20 per cent ahead of expectations, and the next target is to double those sales "as soon as possible," Ms Scott said.

While Freeview talks about the future of HD, Freesat puts its better-than-expected growth down to the service which it offered from launch. "Satellite has been able to offer HD for some time. There's more capacity than on Freeview and you can't do it on internet TV," she said. The group, which now employs 40, also offers the BBC iPlayer online catch up service and is to provide ITV's equivalent service integrated into their boxes. Ms Scott is determined to differentiate the group further. "We're looking for ways to develop the service. You can't stand still. The world is moving on; technology is moving on."

She says the business model is different to Freeview's model as "a marketing company that helps other people sell set top boxes". Freesat performs those services and also manages technical aspects, including the electronic programme guide (EPG), which is where it makes half its money. The rest is provided by shareholders. "The EPG is our most valuable asset going forwards to make the business profitable," she said.

Ms Scott joined Freesat from the BBC. She was hired by Ed Richards, now head of Ofcom, to focus on web strategy, before being brought in to advise Greg Dyke, calling it "career forming. I experienced extraordinary events from the Hutton crisis to launching Freeview, to Freesat."

She is happy at the company her chairman called "your own trainset" adding: "It's a start-up here, there's great energy." Ms Scott is a self-confessed news addict, and her favourite shows include The Good Wife, Nurse Jackie and 30 Rock. She believes there is a lot to play for: "TV is a massive democratising tool. People who talk about the death of linear TV are just wrong."

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