Next week one of the Freeview multiplexes will close. The loss of one of the HD multiplexes means the loss of a number of channels. BBC Four HD will move elsewhere but some others including Forces TV will shut.
Meanwhile a formal campaign has now been launched to “save” Freeview. The fear is that more of the frequencies currently used for terrestrial television will be lost in the medium to long term. But how real is the threat of an actual switch off?
Well ultimately it boils down to political realities and whether sufficient demand for terrestrial television still exists.
First – let’s distinguish between the multiplexes used primarily to carry the public service channels and those used to carry other broadcasters. The three commercial multiplexes are broadcast mostly from the main transmitters – they were in operation before digital switchover.
There are a number of questions to ask – not least how long some smaller free-to-air channels will be viable for.
Only a brave person would make a definitive prediction. A line on a graph may be going in a downward direction at the moment but it may flatten or turn around.
My bet though is that we will continue to see smaller channels – those which do not commission any significant original content – close. Why tune into the 49th repeat of a 1984 comedy on a minor channel when you can see it on demand any time?
But as long as the multiplex operator can make money, they will want to keep that multiplex going.
Of course it is entirely possible that as older SD only equipment falls out of use, it will be viable to switch the commercial multiplexes to the more efficient encoding system used by the remaining HD capable PSB multiplex. This could allow a similar number of SD channels on fewer frequencies.
When it comes to the future of the public service multiplexes, quite different arguments apply. They are broadcast from every transmitter in the land and primarily exist to ensure near universal reception of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
Yes the trend is towards on-demand. Yes you can watch linear channels over broadband. But to suggest there will be no need for terrestrial transmission in the near future is for the birds.
There are so many obvious reasons for it.
First – the simple beauty of simply turning on a TV set with no additional equipment to watch a major, popular channel.
Secondly – the need for a robust way of ensuring universal access to public services.
Thirdly – imagine the outcry, especially from older people, if there was any chance of traditional terrestrial TV going.
There is a reason why FM radio still exists despite calls for years for a “radio digital switchover”.
Digital TV switchover a decade ago was only realistic because Freeview was such a success. Few were watching analogue in areas where Freeview was available within a few years of its launch in 2002.
But there are still some key questions.
Will three public service multiplexes still be necessary – especially as HD ready equipment becomes standard. And are all the relay transmitters really still needed?
Many of the transmitters built after the late-70s were there to provide improved reception – not to bring television to the area. Some small transmitters were built to deal with patches where the signal was weak or where reception was badly affected by ghosting.
With digital, these problems were overcome. You can still get a robust, clear picture from a slightly weaker signal. The only issue would be ensuring aerials could be replaced if necessary.
Ultimately, digital terrestrial TV will exist as long as there is sufficient public demand and need for it.
The situation was different to begin with in some other countries which did not have a robust, universal terrestrial network – cable and later satellite were always more important in some foreign countries than in the UK.
Good luck to any British politician who thinks turning off terrestrial TV will win votes.
PICTURED: Freeview logo. COPYRIGHT: Freeview.