Can hybrid television redefine Australian TV? – The consumer experience

Freeview Plus Tomorrow sees the launch of Freeview Plus, the long-awaited industry hybrid broadcast/IPTV service. Ahead of the launch, Mumbrella’s Nic Christensen talked to Freeview and the five major TV networks, in this two part special, to look at how it might impact the medium and the wider industry.

It’s 2019 and 32-year-old Eve from Kirribilli in Sydney comes home late from work. As she settles on the sofa after a long day in the office she flicks on the TV, and realises she has missed the season premiere of her favourite US TV drama series.

Years ago Eve could have caught up on her tablet or computer, but the major TV networks would have made her wait until the program had finished broadcasting and then a little time waiting for it to be made live online, as well as limiting her to their broadcast schedule.

But in 2019 her HbbTV internet connected TV knows she’s coming in late to the show and asks her “do you want to watch this program from the start?” She hits yes and starts watching a streamed broadcast of the show from the beginning.

And when the show is finished, rather than having to wait until next week for the next instalment, a prompt comes up asking if she would like to “binge” and watch the next couple of episodes. “Why not it’s only 9pm?”, Eve thinks as she clicks yes. A pre-roll ad, that is targeted to her based on not only her viewing habits, demographic, gender but also her postcode of Kirribilli, plays.

In 2019 traditional linear TV isn’t dead, thanks mainly to event TV and live sport, but the addition of hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV) has added a final piece to the catch up television puzzle.

Well that’s the dream of Australia’s five free-to-air TV networks, and industry body Freeview Australia, anyway. The question is: can they make it a reality?

HbbTV a ‘game changer’ for Australian TV?

In Australia both IPTV and catch up television itself is not new. As many as 200,000 Australian already subscribe to Netflix, indeed we lead the world in piracy, and that’s before you get to the myriad of IPTV options already confronting consumers with Apple TV, FetchTV, Presto, BBC iPlayer, Google Chromecast, Quickflix, not to mention the various disparate free-to-air network catch up offerings – ABC iView, SBS OnDemand, Plus7, Jumpin and Tenplay.

Liz Ross

Liz Ross

With so much choice available the challenge was to create one aggregate platform for Australian TV similar to Hulu in the US. While there have been calls for such a service since at least 2011, the challenge has been getting Australia’s free-to-air networks to work together.

The person who took on this challenging task is Liz Ross, general manager of Freeview. “What we are doing is the first in the world,” Ross declares. “In all the other countries (such as Germany and France) they are all doing the HbbTV red button experience, which is channel by channel, but no one has provided an aggregated EPG (electronic program guide) where you can get to everybody’s catch up offering.”

Central to Freeview Plus will be the red and green buttons that exist on most TV remotes already. Each time a consumer changes the channel on a HbbTV enabled television they will be presented in the left corner with an option to press the red or green button of their remote;  the red will take them to that station’s IPTV catch up service (iView, OnDemand, Plus7, Jumpin or Tenplay), while the green will take them to the Freeview Plus electronic program guide (EPG).

iview freeview plus While EPGs are nothing new for millions of Australians, particularly those with a pay-TV service Foxtel, the Freeview Plus offering will represent a major change for many: firstly in that with one click of the red button on their remote it allow them to access the five different network catch up services; and secondly offering a variety of new features including featured content, recommendations, a search function and favourites.

(Freeview demonstration video which will be played in stores to show consumers the technology.)

After 50 years of being limited to the same linear broadcast patterns this represents a massive potential opportunity for Australia’s TV networks to allow viewers to tailor the services to them.

“We are across 13 different platforms,” says Rebecca Heap, head of TV strategy and digital products for the ABC, who leads its iView offering, “and while we are on connected TVs, I think the thing we’ve been missing is that mass of viewing through the main television set.”

This view is also shared by Network Seven, whose general manager of group technical services Trevor Bird adds: “The reason this is the missing piece in the catch up puzzle is that prior to this we only had the Plus7 (IPTV catch-up) service available on certain brands of TV sets that we may have collaborated with.

“HbbTV provides us the ability to provide content to people in a very low friction way.”

Getting market penetration

The first challenge for Freeview and the TV networks will be getting the HbbTV televisions into the home of millions of Australians.

The technical challenges involved in the rollout of HbbTV are extensive and freely acknowledged by Freeview’s Ross, who says they have done a lot of work in the area and hopes for 10 per cent penetration, around 800,000 households, by September 2015.

She cites the German experience of HbbTV with Prosieben, which is now three years post launch and has around 30 per cent penetration, as a case study arguing most of its growth has come in the last two years.

“When we’ve looked at the rate of growth in Germany it was a bit like smart phones,” says Ross. “You had the early adopters before it suddenly started taking off in years two and year three where it had steep growth because 100 per cent of the smart TVs (sold) were HbbTV.”

Tomorrow’s launch is expected to see Freeview announce a modest list of certified TV manufacturers, while the first HbbTV set top box will not hit stores until October.

Set Top

Prosieben case study from Germany. Click to enlarge.

Ross says that by Christmas the range will be more extensive, with a 32 inch HbbTV starting at under $600, while set top boxes could be around the $100 mark. There has also been strong interest from major retailers with the likes of Harvey Norman and The Good Guys in the process of extensive sales training with staff, and Freeview ensuring there is sales collateral and video demos in store from rollout.

(Freeview training video which is being shown to sales staff in stores to help them show consumers the technology.)

“Our announcement will include some of the largest manufacturers and while not everybody will be bringing products out on the same day they all have plans to have products coming out from September to Christmas,” says Ross.

“Going into Christmas there will be a big choice with many TVs saying Freeview Plus.”

Ross also noted some manufacturers have said they would be pushing software upgrades out to some existing HbbTV enabled smart TVs already in homes. “I’m already aware of at least three manufacturers who will upgrade sets that have been sold over the last 6 to 12 months,” she said. “That will affect quite a lot of receivers.”

But there will also be other technical challenges. For example, Freeview Plus won’t be compatible with Foxtel’s iQ offering meaning any of its 2.5m subscribers buying HbbTV sets or set top boxes will have to change inputs if they want to switch between their pay-TV services and the new free-to-air HbbTV offering.

Foxtel will also later this year release iQ3 which is expected to challenge the free-to-air offering and provide its own enhanced IPTV offering. The pay-TV operator declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Network Nine sales boss Peter Wiltshire says the networks are being realistic about how long it will take to get market penetration.

“It’s a brilliant new technology and it will be a great enhancement to the viewing experience,” says Wiltshire. “But you have got some significant amount of time before penetration and any opportunity for consumers on any level of mass becomes reality.”

Seven’s technical boss Trevor Bird agrees, but says there is the potential for consumer uptake to surprise if the networks provide a strong content offering.

“Australians buy about 2.5m TV sets in this country each year,” says Bird. “The evidence is 70 per cent of first smart TV sets which are in the main living room are actually hooked up and 40 per cent of secondary TV sets are actually hooked up.

“In two years from now we will have a couple of million (HbbTV) TV sets in homes hooked up (to the web), and if we have a really great compelling offer and there is a lot of buzz about it and people really have to have this offer then penetration will be higher.”

The content question

Multicultural broadcaster SBS has taken a lead in HbbTV, choosing to launch its offering in June rather than wait for its fellow free-to-air rivals.

The launch helped generate some free publicity for the smaller public broadcaster, but SBS manager of technology strategy and innovation Trevor Long says that wasn’t the reason for going early: “We launched in beta so we could get any technical feedback and continue our technical trials with manufacturers who are in the market.

“The development of these apps has not been easy and we wanted to be sure that come Freeview Plus time we were comfortable that our viewer experience was going to be the best we could offer.”


Screen shot of Prosieben IPTV channels. Click to enlarge.

HbbTV will eventually allow Networks to create separate internet-based channels in addition to their main channels. Germany’s Prosieben has 15 channels covering fashion, automotive, DIY and other interest areas, all with massive commercial opportunities.

In the run up to Freeview Plus launching the networks have been wary of signalling new IPTV channel offerings and certain functionalities, like the ability to download a show that is currently being broadcast, technologies which would further fragment traditional TV viewing audiences. So far only Seven has put its toe in the water announcing in January that it would, eventually, offer a health and lifestyle IPTV channel Healthy Me TV which is already live online.

SBS’s Long says it’s not the additional new channels that excite him most, but the potential HbbTV unlocks for existing programming, citing the engagement its viewers have with food programming.

He adds: “If you are watching SBS on a Thursday night then we know you love food and if you press the red button rather than just taking you to our OnDemand app, with all of our offerings, we present to your food content, additional video content or even recipes on the screen. There could also be advertiser integration and sponsorship.

“But when you press that button on a Wednesday night it’s different.”

Freeview’s Ross argues all of this would give consumers much greater choice in content, while also unlocking lucrative advertising integration deals.

“The supermarket that has Jamie Oliver could have a Jamie Oliver cooking channel,” she says. “It could be sponsored by the supermarket and all that sort of stuff is completely relevant.

“It is conceivable that next year Nine could do an (HbbTV) app for The Block. Mitre10 could own it and could have special interactive things where you can make inquiries or get the shopping list for that renovation.”

Selling Freeview Plus

The key objective for the free-to-air television industry will be selling viewers and advertisers not only on the potential of HbbTV, but their ability to deliver market penetration and a compelling offering, redefining catch up and IPTV in Australia.

It is no small task and first salvo in the campaign will begin next week with a 30 second television ad across all free-to-air channels promoting the arrival of “catch up in one place” and featuring a number of household names.


“The promotional power that will be unleashed in the next few weeks and months is unprecedented,” warns Seven West revenue officer Kurt Burnette.

However, the road to launch has been fraught with drama. As Mumbrella revealed in June, regional Seven affiliate Prime Media Group pulled out of the industy body Freeview, with the network arguing the low take up of smart TVs in regional areas was a sign the regional market is undeveloped and not ready for the Freeview Plus service.

Freeview boss Ross played down the issue and suggestions they are behind a delay, which saw the launch moved from May to September, arguing the change of dates has mostly been to do with manufacturer and supplier issues.

“(The tensions) have been widely exaggerated,” she says. “We told the market that we would be out by the end of the first half of 2014. Our friends at some of the newspapers like to say we are six months late – well actually we said we’d be out by June.”

Ten’s chief digital officer Rebekah Horne says Freeview should be commended for getting all the major networks onboard.

“Freeview has done a really good job of corralling all of the industry people and companies,” says Horne. “It is tremendously important and a shot in the arm for the industry that they have been able to work together”

While Nine’s Wiltshire is more to the point: “We have a reputation for not getting along that well so if anything can improve that reputation this is probably a good step in the right direction.”

ABC iView boss Heap says she is excited for what HbbTV could do for the future of both catch up and the wider industry. “The key thing is this is extremely exciting, and much awaited, for consumers – having it in the lounge room is going to be a bit of a game-changer for all our catch up services,” she says.

SBS innovation boss Long agrees: “I reckon this is the one thing that will take catch up to the next level. Catch up is awesome but there is still a huge population that may have heard of it but won’t know where to get it. But if we can put it right in front of them – on their lounge where they normally watch television, that will change how we deliver and monetise our content.”

Part two tomorrow will examine the impact of HbbTV on the advertiser experience and look at how the TV networks are aiming to capitalise on the both the revenue opportunities presented by Freeview Plus and in their fight against piracy.


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