With the two main free TV services, Freeview and Freesat, providing different collections of channels, including some major notable omissions, like the lack of Channel4 in HD or Dave on Freesat, people often ask “Why can’t I have ‘x’? Surely if they got rid of all the shopping, there’d be space for the things I want.” You’ll see frustrated posts in forums saying “Why can’t Freesat get XX” or “Will YY ever come to Freeview.”
You don’t have to spend long on internet forums where digital TV is discussed to come across topics like this, but the questions are often based on a misconception about how Freeview and Freesat work, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain how this works.
Freeview and Freesat are pretty similar in some regards. They provide an easy way to make free television available, through your aerial or a satellite dish. And a lot of what they do is about marketing – telling people “Buy a Freeview/Freesat box, and you get these channels free.” They also set technical standards that ensure all the boxes with the logo on them will work properly; Freesat also looks after the ‘Electronic Programme Guide’ or EPG, which means deciding which channel goes on which number. That’s pretty much it, for both organisations.
In the picture
What neither of them does is broadcast TV channels. That might seem strange, but it’s key to the question of which channels appear in the guide on which boxes. For a TV channel to appear, it needs ‘carriage’, which means an arrangement with the people who run the transmitters for terrestrial TV (Freeview), or the satellites for Freesat. We’ll leave cable out of it for now; the key thing is that Freeview doesn’t own the transmitters, and Freesat doesn’t own the satellites.
For terrestrial TV, the transmitter network is owned by a couple of companies, and if you want to run a TV channel, they’ll let you know when there’s space to add one, and you can bid for it; usually, the highest bidder wins – sometimes the transmitter company might use other criteria – and then the channel broadcasts, and it appears on Freeview.
For satellite TV, a channel goes to the satellite company (or to someone who’s already bought lots of space on the satellite), and pays for some of it. The channel goes on air, but at this stage, it doesn’t appear on the satellite EPG. For that to happen, the channel has to pay another fee, either to Sky or to Freesat, or to both. When that’s done, the channel appears in the programme guide, at the number allocated by Freesat or Sky.
Taking up space
So, as you can see, there’s more than just Freesat or Freeview involved in this – and in the case of satellite, a channel could be on just Freesat, or just Sky, if they wanted. And since neither Freesat nor Freeview (or indeed Sky) owns the transmission systems, they can’t ‘bring’ a channel to their service – the channel has to want to go there.
Now, that complaint that “shopping channels, or +1 channels take up space. Can’t we have something else?” It’s a nice sentiment perhaps (unless you like the shopping channels, or the +1 channels), but as I’ve explained, the carriage isn’t down to those Freesat or Freeview. The contracts to actually broadcast the channels are with other people, and as long as they’re being paid, they aren’t going to say to someone “Look, sorry, we know home shopping is what you do, but just go away and we’ll sell the space you’re using to someone else.”
Neither Freeview nor Freesat has the power or contractual right to say to the people providing the carriage “Turn that channel off, and give its space to someone else.” It would be a bit like London Transport saying to one of the bus companies that run services for it “We print the timetables, so we’re going to say you can take sportsmen, but not shoppers on your buses.” As long as everyone pays their fare, London Transport simply can’t do that.
A quick point with regard to Freesat. We mentioned earlier that a channel can be on the Freesat EPG or on the Sky one, or on neither. Even if a channel were taken off the Freesat guide, that doesn’t mean it would ‘free up space’ for someone else. All that would be freed up would be the number – the channel could still be there, using capacity on the satellite, without being on any programme guide.
Bring me my favourites
Lastly, there are important rules about programme guides, to ensure that they’re operated fairly. For example, these say that the original terrestrial channels should appear first. And charges have to be non-discriminatory, too. That means that a special deal can’t be done to entice a channel onto a service. This doesn’t make much difference to Freeview, with its limited space. But it does tie the hands of Freesat. There might be a great channel, that’s on satellite, but not on Freesat. No matter how great, Freesat’s simply not allowed to say “Come on our EPG, so our viewers can tune in – we’ll give you a special discount.”
So, as you see, both Freeview and Freesat have their hands tied to an extent. It’s simply not within their power to turf one channel off, in favour of another; they don’t run the transmitters or satellites. Even if they did, they would have to be non-discriminatory.
There’s one other issue affecting which channels you can get on Freesat, which is copyright and coverage. But that’s a topic for another post.