NBR ONLINE gets sneak peek at Freeview's on-demand channel

Yesterday afternoon I got to eyeball the Freeview's on-demand demand channel I wrote about earlier this week.

It contains several features - including support for pay-perview content - that could position it as serious competition to igloo (51% owned by Sky TV, 49% by TVNZ and launching next month).

The bad news
First, the bad news: It is just a demo. 

Freeview technology manager Tim Diprose confirmed there is no launch timetable.

The company hopes its shareholders, including TVNZ and TV3 and Four broadcaster MediaWorks, will get in behind it. But so far it is only at the point of them showing interest - although apparently this is building.

For TVNZ, it will partly be a case of how incoming CEO Kevin Kenrick sees the lay of the land.

Intriguingly, streaming video newcomer Quickflix is also interested.

And the timing of Freeivew's publicity push for its on-demand channel, which mainstream media will be shown tomorrow, is perhaps no coincidence.

The political news
The timing is no coincidence. TVNZ and Sky TV are on the verge of launching their new igloo platform. An igloo set-top box will offer a mix of free-to-air channels, pre-pay channels (for $25) and on-demand, pay-per-view internet content.

Freeview perhaps wants to give viewers reason to pause before they crawl into the igloo. And to give TVNZ (which has fingers, or fingertips, in so many pies now) a positive incentive to expand its Freeview involvement.

And NBR ONLINE understands there is a faction in TVNZ that ifavours boosting Freeivew and the on-demand channel option.

The good news
The good news is that Freeview, with help of UK company S&T, has built a fully working prototype on-demand channel.

It can support either on-demand content or streaming video.

Crucially, there is also the capability to support pay-per-view content (somewhere, in a parallel universe, TVNZ shunned Sky TV's igloo overtures and supported Freeview with a pay-per-view option, boots and all).

There's no doubt the technology works in practice. Connect TV, which launched in February, already has it live in the UK.

On-demand for regular folks
There are already many options for on-demand viewing. In the free-to-air world, options include TVNZ on-demand content through the state broadcaster's website, and MediaWorks sites for TV3 and Four. You can watch it on your PC or, if you've got the right wi-fi kit connecting things, your regular telly.

Freeview's on-demand service, by contrast, appears as a regular channel (in fact, although it hasn't been publicised, those with a Freeview device bought last year onward - barring compatibility issues below - can see it now on channel 600). 

"It makes it a lot easier for a regular person to comprehend," the Freeview technology manager said.

He's right.

Once you've flicked to channel 600, you can easily navigate around an on-demand home-screen (pictured above).

The traditional-channel model also means Freeview broadcasting partner Kordia stays in the mix, for the new channel needs its own MUX holder (though it triggers to IP servers once you're on it).

Kordia also happens to be hosting the limited amount of sample content on the proof-of-concept channel, although that could be hosted by any internet provider with a content delivery network (CDN).

Better quality than on-demand for your laptop
Another bonus is that while today's on-demand services are OK definition for a laptop (TVNZ on-demand, for example, is 1.5Mbit/s), Freeview's on-demand service can support 10Mbit/s high-definition content.

However, the current plan is to launch - if it launches - with a standard definition service. Today, few households have data plans that could stomach HD.

Compatibility: more good and bad news
A lot of readers asked which Freeview devices would be compatible with the on-demand channel.

Here again, the news is mixed.

The good: by year's end, Freeview estimates 500,000 devices will be compatible with its on-demand service.

These include Freeview-approved recorders bought last year onwards from the likes of Dish and Magic TV (for compatibility with the MHEG-5 standard used for the interactive service is mandatory) and high-end standalone receivers.

But the bulk will be through Freeview-compatible new TVs bought from last year onwards.

The bad: devices that are not Freeview approved but merely Freeview compatible will not be able to display the on-demand channel. The list includes some big names: TiVo, Sony's Play TV add-on for PlayStation and TelstraClear's T-box. 

High definition EPG
On a less market-shaking note, I also got a sneak preview of Freeview's new high-definition version of its onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG).

Everything is still in the same place, with the same options, but it looks a lot slicker and smoother than today's Freeview EPG or the MySky EPG.

Lastly, Freeview is kicking off a new campaign on Sunday.

Sunday, of course, being just days or weeks from when TVNZ and Sky TV kick off their igloo promotion. Sky TV has told the NZX and all-comers that igloo will launch in the first half of the year.

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