I must admit I’m a little late to the party on this, but I don’t recall seeing much fanfare at the time. In fact, I suspect a lot of people probably won’t even be really aware of what it was, let alone that it closed down at the end of October.
Back when it started, Freeview was relatively new, and not all the slots had been taken up. TopUpTV saw an opening and bought capacity – some of which belonged to Channel 5 – to provide a pay TV service for those who wanted a little extra compared to the standard Freeview offering. Channels included part time versions of UK Gold, and it was aimed at those people who had a set top box with a card slot. Specifically, those who had an old OnDigital box, since there weren’t many others around at the time with a slot. That was one of the considerations in my own choice of a Topfield PVR when they launched, as the CAM slot enabled me to get the extra channels.
With only a limited amount of space, and some channels broadcasting at slightly odd hours, TopUpTV wasn’t a roaring success, and things became progressively more difficult for it over the years. Perhaps, at first, many people understimated the success that Freeview would become, after the collapse of the subscription service that preceded it, but eventually those slots that TopUpTV used because quite appealing to other broadcasters, including Channel 5, and they slowly lost out on space, forcing them into a fairly radical course of action.
TopUpTV reinvented themselves as a ‘Push Video On Demand’ service at the start of 2007. With a specially designed box from Thomson, the main thrust of the service was overnight downloads; while capacity during peak viewing hours was expensive, it was easier to use space in the middle of the night, when channels were shut down. The new box allowed users to select channels, and new content from those channels was broadcast overnight, and automatically added to a library, ready to be watched later.
Perhaps that sounds like a bit of a weird idea, but remember that at the start of 2007, higher speed broadband services were only just being rolled out. An 8Mbps service from BT was £27 per month and the ‘Colossus’ backbone operated by BT still tied most people to 2Mbps. Even the BBC iPlayer wasn’t to officially come out of beta until the end of the year.
So, back then, this really did seem a novel, and interesting way to provide some extra content, but the capacity was still limited, so you’d only get selected shows from the channels you’d chosen, and if you didn’t like what was on offer, that was tough luck.
Freeview itself was busy working on innovations, and in the same year launched Freeview Playback, later to become Freeview+, and it took a while before functions like series link – seen by many as very important – made it to the TopUpTV box.
IPTV killed Push VOD
In 2010, Freeview HD launched; TopUpTV had no HD content, but they did fight back with the launch of Sky Sports, using their conditional access functionality to bring it to Freeview alongside EPSN. But that capacity problem, again – with limited space, dedicated sports fans would still need to find another way to be sure they could watch everything they needed to.
And waiting in the wings, there was even more competition. By now broadband was starting to offer much faster speeds. iPlayer was becoming well known, and LoveFilm was offering streaming to some of the first smart TV sets and games consoles.
With Netflix arriving in the UK at the start of 2012, more smart TVs, and services such as YouView plugging directly into iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Demand 5, it’s not hard to see why the TopUpTV proposition started to look a little ragged around the edges.
Sky doesn’t need a gatekeeper to provide access to their sports channels on Freeview any more; they can deliver them directly over the internet to equipment a NowTV box, which can also provide access to far more of the content from subscription channels than Push VOD ever could. If it was just a little extra that you wanted, then rather than taking what you happened to get from the selection available on a TopUpTV box, a subscription to Netflix would give you a huge catalogue of material to choose from, often in HD and with surround sound too – something that the SD Push VOD service would never be able to offer.
So, given the march of technology, it’s hardly a surprise, I suppose, to see TopUpTV stop broadcasting; and I’m not honestly sure it could have played out any differently – as Freeview itself took off, the only solution would have been to acquire more spectrum to broadcast more material, at considerable cost. Moving to MPEG4 might have fitted more in, but would have required investment in consumer equipment, and spending more on content, for a service that would only ever have been a poor relation to satellite or cable, yet would have needed a decent subscription income to remain viable. OnDigital never managed to square that circle, and I don’t think anyone else will.
It was an interesting experiment, which I suspect worked for different people at different times – the original linear service was good for me, back in 2004, but the PVR and Push VOD didn’t offer what I wanted, nor did the later sports offerings. But other people will feel differently. That the company reinvented itself to cope with the changing landscape is laudable. Ultimately, though, perhaps it was always doomed to be swept away by the technological tide.