ITV no longer free? 

6 August 2009

Broadcast Now: ITV digital channels may leave Freeview

If such a thing had happened merely two years ago it would have been a bigger deal than it is today. That’s my opinion as to the potential impact of ITV withdrawing its digital only channels from Freeview, but the very fact that this occasionally keeps surfacing as a news story just goes to show how desperate commercial television is at present.

ITV is obviously trying to extract a very favourable carriage deal from BSkyB in particular, because it knows all too well the benefits that Sky (and Virgin Media) would gain from such a move in terms of boosted subscriber numbers.

The media world is now shifting away from multiple linear TV channels towards an online, on demand model of viewing programmes, and the advertising slump is helping to speed up this process. Plus the recent popularity of the iPlayer combined with the potential for an imminent deluge of video services (Project Canvas, Hulu, etc.) will reinforce this trend.

Therefore moving ITV’s digital-only channels to the pay-TV shelter may only be a temporary solution unless/until there’s a good way of monetising online content (as opposed to 25p a view), but ITV knows this all too well. What ITV needs now is a bigger breathing space, and such a deal could be the answer if it can be made to work financially.

So what will the actual consequences be if ITV actually does withdraw ITV2/3/4 from Freeview? The channels will certainly lose viewers as a byproduct of such a move, especially as viewers new to Sky/Virgin services will have numerous other channels to look at as well as losing the Freeview audience.

All things considered, the potential loss of ITV3 and ITV4 from Freeview isn’t that surprising given the fact that both of these channels were at least partly derived from pay-TV channels; ITV3 is loosely based on the old Granada Plus channel, whilst ITV4 drew its inspiration from Men and Motors, which continues to exist as a pay-TV channel.

Another unanswered question is what will happen to the free space on Freeview previously occupied by those channels. One possibility is that those channels won’t actually disappear; instead Sky might resurrect its Picnic terrestrial pay-TV proposition, encompassing those ITV channels along with a few others to make a new service.

It’s the sort of thing that James (and Rupert) Murdoch might do given half a chance, but would trigger another lengthy investigation from Ofcom and the Monopoly Commission. More likely is ITV either selling the channel slots to other broadcasters such as shopping channels or using the free space for an additional HD TV channel.

Whatever the outcome, if ITV does actually move its digital channels to pay-TV it could trigger a renewed investigation into BSkyB’s activities, but as a side effect could also make the BBC’s digital channels become more valued (and watched) as a consequence.

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