Freeview lures over-55s to digital TV

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Four in 10 viewers buying decoders for the BBC-backed terrestrial digital TV service Freeview are aged over 55, it emerged today.

It means Freeview is finally delivering what the government was hoping for - a rival to Sky TV and a service that can attract digital refuseniks with free channels such as BBC3 and BBC4.

Freeview, the BBC backed digital television service that replaced the defunct ITV Digital in October last year, today revealed that an estimated 1.6 million households were now receiving Freeview, which offers 30 television and radio channels for a one-off payment of around £99.

The BBC marketing director, Andy Duncan, said Freeview had succeeded in persuading viewers who were not attracted by pay-TV services, with nearly three quarters of new Freeview customers being new to digital television.

And for around nine in 10 Freeview customers it is the only digital system in their house, dispelling early fears that its viewers would simply come from those who already paid for digital TV.

"It's bringing in a new audience that is complementary to pay and is growing the market," said Mr Duncan, who played an instrumental role in persuading television watchdogs to let the BBC, in conjunction with transmission business Crown Castle and BSkyB, take over when ITV Digital collapsed with debts of £1.2bn last year.

Freeview is seen as a crucial plank in the government's plan to switch off the analogue television signal between 2006 and 2010, and the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, will be encouraged by the research, which shows that three quarters of Freeview customers are over 35 while 40% are over the age of 55.

The new figures, the first to examine the Freeview customer base in any detail, suggest the BBC's marketing message is getting through to those originally turned off by the thought of paying to receive digital TV.

The most important reason for getting Freeview, according to those who had bought boxes, was that it could be bought "for a one off payment and no contract".

But the survey also shows the corporation still has a lot of marketing work to do to explain its channel portfolio to licence fee payers.

Half of those surveyed believed that they would have to pay for extra BBC channels such as BBC4 and CBeebies, or said they did not know whether they were free or not.

More than 800,000 boxes have been sold since the service launched in October 2002, with a further 800,000 estimated to be watching through their old ITV Digital boxes or integrated digital televisions.

The boxes had been selling at a rate of more than 100,000 a month since January and the Freeview general manager, Matthew Seaman, said he expected sales to pick up further in the autumn and the run-up to Christmas.

The BBC has also reiterated its determination to start broadcasting its channels "in the clear" on digital satellite, regardless of the decision of the independent television commission, which recently intervened in the row between the BBC and Sky over whether the broadcaster was able to demote the BBC's channels to a lowly position on its viewing guide.

The ITC has yet to rule on the matter but the corporation said it was determined to press ahead with the plan, whatever the watchdog's decision.

Carolyn Fairburn, the BBC director of strategy, said the corporation had set a date of mid-July to switch off Sky's encryption system, a move the corporation believes will save it £85m over five years.

For the first time viewers will be able to receive BBC channels over digital satellite without a special viewing card and Ms Fairburn hinted that, over time, it hoped the platform would grow into a free alternative to Freeview.

The BBC has promised to further boost the Freeview signal so that it reaches 82% of homes by next year but hopes that a free to air satellite proposition will fill in the gaps in rural areas.
 
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