Freeview hits 2m mark



The number of homes with access to digital service Freeview has passed the 2 million mark less than a year after the BBC backed replacement for ITV Digital was launched.
According to figures from Continental Research, 2.1 million homes can now receive Freeview, either through an old ITV Digital box or through one of the new generation of boxes that retail at around £99.

The milestone will be seen as a vindication of the independent television commission's decision to hand a broadcasting licence to the project, a joint venture between the BBC, BSkyB and transmission business Crown Castle, following the collapse of ITV Digital.

However, of the 2.1 million homes that can receive Freeview, 900,000 of them already have SkyDigital or cable pay-TV and are using the free-to air service for second and third sets.

Several commentators, including former Channel Five chief executive David Elstein, have warned the challenge of converting every set in the house, as well as video recorders, is the Achilles heel in culture secretary Tessa Jowell's plan to switch off the analogue signal by 2010.

Of the total number of 1.2 million households using Freeview as their only means of viewing digital television, 900,000 are new to multichannel TV, according to the figures.

But the BBC marketing director, Andy Duncan, the man behind the launch of Freeview, will be buoyed by statistics that show awareness of Freeview, and the fact that it offers 30 extra channels for a one-off fee, has soared since last year.

Since last June, when the BBC, Crown Castle and BSkyB won the licence, awareness of the service has grown from 39% of the population to seven out of 10 people. Awareness is particularly strong among men, with almost three quarters of all males aware of the service.

Mr Duncan will be further encouraged by analysis of the figures that shows awareness of Freeview has grown most among women, although over-65s still represent an untapped market according to the figures.

Adults with Freeview tend to be older than those in digital homes generally, fitting the profile of the "digital refuseniks" the government and the BBC hope to attract in order to make progress towards the 2010 switch-off date.

But the bi-annual research sounds a note of caution. Based on current intentions, much of the future growth of Freeview will come from existing digital viewers buying second or third Freeview boxes.

BSkyB will also be encouraged by the research. After much recent talk of what it would do to protect its revenues on free-to-air television and broadband, the figures show pay-TV service SkyDigital is likely to remain the most popular digital broadcaster for a long while yet.

Research into interactive services on SkyDigital such as voting, betting and gaming also shows that they are becoming more popular as people become more familiar with them. For example, 2.7 million people are now regularly using their TV to vote in programmes or polls, compared with 1.6 million six months ago. And 5.7 million now listen to the radio through their television.

"Sky Digital seems likely to remain the clear market leader and the total market still has some way to go to reach the 95% target set as a necessary condition for analogue switch-off," the report concludes.