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|Features: History of DTT • ONdigital line-up • Freeview launch line-up • Former channels • Lord of the Mux|
In early 1996, plans from the late-1980s to launch a fifth television channel using previously ‘reserved’ frequencies were put into action. The licence to broadcast was awarded to Channel 5. Meanwhile, plans to squeeze in a digital television service alongside the exisiting analogue channels were also being made. In June, the BBC’s Research and Development department began trial broadcasts of digital terrestrial television channels in London, with a view to launching a full service by late-1998.
Channel 5 begins broadcasting on the evening of March 30. On July 24, the licence to broadcast a full digital terrestrial service is awarded to British Digital Broadcasting (BDB), owned by regional ITV franchise holders Carlton and Granada. Under the terms of the licence, three multiplexes are awarded to BDB, with one each provided for the use of ITV and Channel 4 combined, S4C and Channel 5 combined, and the BBC. BDB negotiate to use spare capacity on these PSB multiplexes in order to boost the number of channels on offer.
Under the name ONdigital, British Digital Broadcasting launch the UK’s first digital terrestrial television service on November 15. Initial subscriber numbers look good, attracted by a strong channel line-up at a price which provides Sky with healthy competition. Unfortunately, despite new pricing promotions, customer numbers begin to level off quite rapidly, with many leaving the service. The platform is blighted by technical problems: coverage was patchy, and picture quality was often poor to average. BDB’s decision to pursue quantity over quality in an attempt to directly compete with Sky does not appear to be working.
See the ONdigital channel line-up here
ONdigital is re-branded as ITV Digital in an attempt to strengthen the brand on July 11. Along with the new name came a new marketing campaign (featuring the famous Monkey) and a new strategy. BDB began throwing money at the platform to compete with Sky - especially over sports coverage: but their deal to screen Football League football matches proved disastrous. BDB and several football clubs (who had ‘already spent’ the money) went bankrupt when the predicted influx of new subscribers failed to appear.
Following a High Court order, ITV Digital is put into administration on March 27. The future of the platform looks in doubt. On April 23, ITV-branded pay-per-view services (ITV Select) and adult channels are removed from the line-up.
The company ITV Digital is hastily re-named back to ONdigital on 30 April 2002, the day before the company officially collapsed into administration and pulled all subscription channels off the air. Subscribers are left with the free channels, most from the terrestrial broadcasters, whilst Film Four and E4 continue to broadcast until all subscriptions to the channels expire. The Independent Television Commission, responsible for awarding the licences to broadcast, begins an emergency procedure to re-advertise the digital broadcast licences.
|On July 4, the ITC award the digital licences to a consortium of the BBC and Crown Castle, offering a purely-free offering of channels. The bid beats off bids from ITV and Channel 4, and SDN, both suggesting a mix of free- and pay-television channels. The ITC’s decision is likely to have considered the need to encourage rapid take-up of DTT in order to make the prospect of digital switchover a viable one, and a need to increase public confidence in the platform.|
Freeview launches on October 30. With increased power and a more robust transmission signal, coverage and signal quality is improved across the country. Although initial take-up is slow (due to a lack of receivers on the market and their high price), market forces and a raft of new channel launches soon drive the platform’s popularity. By July 2003, it is estimated that 1.5 million homes have Freeview. This figure rises to 4 million by June 2004.
See the original Freeview line-up here
Riding on the back of Freeview’s increasing success, Top Up TV launches on March 31, bringing pay-television channels back to DTT. Faced with annoyance from the BBC and much scepticism, the company insists it can prosper, requiring only 250,000 subscribers to break even.
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