Topping up DTT 

1 May 2004 tbs.pm/1963

Some of the details might have been slightly different, but, for one time out of about a thousand, the rumour mill had it pretty close to the truth.

Top Up TV

The rumours started flying a while ago about a consortium looking to provide a pay-TV style service on Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT). Not surprisingly, most people were generally rather dismissive of the idea.

After all, the On/ITV Digital debacle was – and still is – rather fresh in everyone’s memory, while Freeview’s recent success in converting new viewers to digital TV, along with the lack of space available to DTT, meant that any proposition was facing a lot of trouble from the start. It might simply be better to wait until Freeview was in more homes.

In late January 2004, word was spreading round the media news websites that such a service was indeed coming together and would be announced by the end of February. Once again, the good ol’ rumour mill went into full swing.

Possible channels, good points, bad points: there was no stone left unturned in the discussions and rumours that flew around at light speed. On Monday February 9, the official announcement finally came, a website (www.topup.tv) came on-line, and almost all was revealed. Finally, the service went live on March 31st

So, after all the rumours, here are the facts. The service, known collectively as Top Up TV, offers a package of time-shared channels across what seems to be 4 or 5 channel streams. The available services, and times of availability are detailed below.

General Entertainment section of the EPG:

  • Channel 14 E4 4pm-4am
  • Channel 17 UKTV Gold 12noon-12:50am
  • Channel 25 TCM (Turner Classic Movies) 7pm-5am
  • Channel 26 UKTV Style 6pm-11pm
  • Channel 27 Discovery 12noon-11pm
  • Channel 28 Discovery Home & Leisure 6am-12noon
  • Channel 29 UKTV Food 10am-4pm

Children’s section of the EPG:

  • Channel 32 Cartoon Network 6am-6pm
  • Channel 33 Boomerang 5am-12noon

News section of the EPG:

  • Channel 44 Bloomberg 5am-10am

There is also one adult primary channel, Television X, available between 11pm and 5am for an additional monthly fee of £9.99.

The other channels are available in a single package, for a charge of £7.99. There is an initial connection charge of £20, or £10 if you subscribe via the website. Unlike Sky, there is no 12-month minimum contract.

Because this is a subscription service, it requires a viewing card that plugs into a ‘conditional access module’, which is absent from most DTT boxes these days. Integrated Digital Televisions (IDTVs) have the necessary hardware built in, as do the old On/ITV Digital boxes.

Top-Up TV was originally hoping to offer ‘sidecar’ conditional access modules that could be attached to some normal Freeview boxes, but more likely viewers will have to wait for new set-top boxes with viewing card slots to arrive. The service is supplied in addition to Freeview, so there’s no change to the Freeview channel line-up.

Those are the facts. But what does it all mean?

First, look at the times that the channels are available. There is a lot of time-sharing going on, because most of these channels broadcast 24 hours a day, or at least for much of that period.

However, some channels have time-shared in the past on analogue satellite and it would not be unheard of to find those channels sharing a single stream again. Discovery Home and Leisure and The Discovery Channel used to timeshare on Astra 1 at 19.2 E.

On Top Up TV, Home & Leisure broadcasts from 6am to 12noon, with Discovery Channel available from noon until 11pm – ultimately, apparently until 2am.

As the same company owns these channels, it is not surprising that these channels share a DTT stream – though the technology allows shared streams to be allocated different ‘channel’ numbers.

The odd one out in all this seems to be Turner Classic Movies, as its schedule times do not match up with any others in the package.

It is believed that the plan was for this service to time-share with Disney’s Freeview channel, under an original working title of “Daytime”. Whether this was the case or not is unclear at this stage.

It is also interesting to see both Boomerang and TCM in the Top Up TV line up as these were thought to be coming on to Freeview with CNN International, but talks broke down.

It is also interesting to note that Cartoon Network, UKTV Gold, UKTV Style and E4 are in the line up for Top Up TV. These were channels that were part of On/ITV Digital’s line-up, and all of them except E4 were there from Day 1.

There are however two aspects of this that do come across badly. The first of these is the cost. £7.99 for 10 channels might sound like a good deal, but do remember this includes a lot of time-sharing channels. On/ITV Digital did have some time-sharing as part of their package.

In their initial documentation, Carlton Select and Carlton Food Network shared a channel stream, as did Carlton Kids and Carlton World, Granada Breeze and Granada Men & Motors, and UK Horizons and UK Style.

Top Up TV appears to have three channels sharing one channel stream, and maybe another three sharing a second stream.

£7.99 a month does not represent great value in another way, too: when you compare it to others in the same field. On/ITV Digital originally offered your choice of any 6 channel streams for £7.99, where as Top Up TV are only offering a maximum of 5 channel streams, so that comes off as poorer value.

Compare it with Sky Digital and it doesn’t fare much better. Sky’s lowest cost package, the Value Pack, may cost £13.50 a month – about £5.50 more a month – but you get 7 primary channels, all of which are full-time, plus 10 channels from Music Choice, and all these are alongside the 70 radio channels and 103 free-to-view channels for which you do not need to pay a subscription.

Even comparisons to cable seem to be somewhat bad as well. Telewest offers a 30-channel starter package for £13.50 a month, £10 of which is for your cable telephony. In effect, you are getting 30 channels for £3.50, which is an incredible deal.

NTL’s Base Pack is the most expensive basic package, offering more than 30 TV and 30 radio channels for £18, which includes telephone line rental of £9.50, meaning you get over 60 radio and TV channels for, in effect, £8.50.

With Freeview boxes costing as little as £50 these days, and prices still going down, that looks even better value when compared to an annual subscription of almost £100 for Top Up TV.

The second factor against Top Up TV is the lack of presence in the line up of one of the oldest and most popular pay-TV channels, Sky One. Sky is a significant part of the Freeview package, with Sky Travel, Sky News and Sky Sports News available free-to-air on Freeview.

However, only Sky News is free-to-view on Sky Digital: the other two are part of the Family Pack, as is Sky One. Sky One has been going through a really rough patch ever since On/ITV Digital closed down.

If there was a big loser in the ITV Digital debacle other than the Football League, it was Sky One. Two years ago, Sky One had a 4.0% share of viewing and a 40.8% weekly reach, and it was just half a percent behind Channel 5, who hadn’t that long before overtaken Sky One for the first time since Five’s launch.

Today it is down to a 2.9% share and 38.7% weekly reach, and is now 2.2% behind Five in share terms, and still falling.

Let us not though trivialise the channel, despite its troubles. Sky One is still the most popular of the primary channels, week in, week out.

Built on the strength of its imports in the mid 1990’s, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and The X-Files, Sky One became must see TV for many multi-channel households, at one point gaining a share of 5.5%, which for a non-terrestrial channel, was unheard of – though these days, the channel is down to almost half that share.

For Sky One boss James Baker, and his boss at Sky Networks, Dawn Airey, Sky One must now hold a pivotal position in deciding whether DTT’s future is free to view, or pay to view.

It’s not an easy decision for Sky to take – in effect, putting ratings over revenue – but that might just be what is required. It is not an easy thing to do, as it would require re-negotiating rights for most of their programmes, but it might just be the best solution.

And a move like this by Sky would show where their priorities lie. Make no mistake, Digital Terrestrial needs Sky One back in the line-up, as Sky One’s programmes are still regarded as very popular among the multi-channel audience, and it is a very well known digital channel, on a par at least with BBC3, BBC4, ITV2 and E4.

But unquestionably, Sky One needs Digital Terrestrial too, as it needs to get its product out to as many potential viewers as possible. So for Sky One, the choice is obvious. Revenues from Top-Up TV, or ratings from Freeview.

Top Up TV might be able to give them about 500,000 extra subscription revenues. Freeview could potentially give them another 3 million households, with at least another 3 million potential viewers for their programmes, and as Sky One and E4 are the only general entertainment channels not on Freeview, and E4 is available for Top Up TV, Sky One must decide what it needs most right now: ratings or revenue.

Since this article was written, E4 has gone free to air. Its replacement on Top Up TV was British Eurosport

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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