4TV – Freeview to the rescue? Or perhaps the OFT

Not long after I wrote my previous post about 4TV, a few news reports cropped up suggesting that Freeview might be coming to the rescue, though what they actually said was merely that they’d be talking to the third party concerned.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s much chance of Freeview stepping in to pay for the service – and don’t forget that InView say they no longer have the bandwidth that’s required to transmit it in any case, which makes things even more expensive to do.

There is – of course – an online petition asking Freeview to re-instate the EPG, but I’m still not of the opinion that it will actually make much difference. Nor do I really think may people will defect to Sky or Freesat as a result – though I’d hope that if they buy replacement equipment, they’ll make sure that it conforms to the digital tick.

A tangled web

I know some people will think this is a somewhat defeatist attitude, but I honestly will be very surprised if someone coughs up the money to fund a service for a small number of people who, legally speaking, aren’t even their customers.

That, I’m afraid, is just realism about how things work – and in particular about how they can work in a world where electronic equipment develops so quickly, and a product that you buy in a shop may actually rely on so many external factors to work correctly that, ultimately, the end user has little or no chance of knowing who to blame if something goes wrong – and there we have some echoes, perhaps, of the situation regarding surround sound on Freeview as well.

In this case, as the legal people at Which have said, along with other experts on consumer law that I’ve spoken with, there really is very little chance of redress.

A wider issue

While it’s certainly frustrating for people who have the affected bits of kit, I think there’s perhaps a better use of ones energy than campaigning to get an EPG brought back for a couple of years, for some equipment that’s pretty old already.

The PVRs affected aren’t by any means the only equipment sold that relies on services from elsewhere for part of their functionality. Take DVD and Blu-ray players, for example, not to mention many other gadgets. Very often these rely on a service called Gracenote, which displays a track listing when you pop a CD in. Gracenote is now owned by Sony, and I have absolutely no reason to imagine that they’ll ever do anything other than keep it going.

But what if they did decide to pull the plug? You’d find that suddenly, you couldn’t just pick the track you wanted to play from a helpful list on screen, when you popped a disc into your player. You’d have to look at the case, and find the number, and work it out that way, just like the people with the 4TV-based PVRs are having to set recordings manually.

And you know what? There’s nothing you could do about it. A feature that you thought was part of a bit of equipment you’ve bought turns out to be reliant on a service provided by a third party, with whom you have no contractual arrangement, and very likely absolutely no rights in law.

It’s the label, darling

I’m sure other readers of this blog can think of other products that, similarly, rely for a part of their functionality on a service that’s provided by someone else. You might call it, perhaps, an ‘implied subscription’ to that service, except of course that’s not really recognised in law: unless something says “With 3 years free subscription to XYZ service” then you can’t really complain when the service stops after two years.

And thinking about it, it would make consumer law even more complicated, if there were some sort of liability established to try and ensure the continuing provision of services. You can’t really make shopkeepers liable for something done by a company they’ve never heard of, can you? You might say that if a service is provided, then a company should have funds set aside to pay for it – but for how long? And wouldn’t that hamper many sstart-up companies before they even got to the launch?

So, I’m not sure there’s an awful lot that can be done, especially in such a complicated and interconnected world, where products and company allegiances change all the time.

The Digital Tick
Look for this symbol to guarantee compatibility with digital TV services, up to and beyond DSO

The ‘Digital Tick’ is supposed to let people know that a product will work throught the switchover to all-digital TV, and beyond; none of the boxes that are affected by the 4TV problems was certified. So perhaps that’s an important lesson for people there.

But in the wider arena, perhaps there’s also something to be said for a similar mark, or indication, not as a statement of approval – such schemes involve more cost, inevitably – but simply a clear and unambiguous statement so that people can know, when they look at a piece of equipment, that a significant feature or part of its functionality relies on a service provided by a third party. So you’d know if a PVR relied on a service like 4TV, or if a Blu-ray player used Gracenote, and you could factor that into your decisions when buying.

There would be work involved in working out what qualifies – for example, the standard Freeview EPG isn’t provided by box manufacturers, but it doesn’t really qualify as a third party service; it’s just there, as part of the platform. I daresay people will think it ever so onerous – but manuals already contain loads of regulatory information as it is. How hard would it be to put an icon next to a feature that relies on a third party? Or perhaps a list near the back page, with URLs? All that is probably a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, I guess.

As devices become more complicated, and provide more and more features, which are often bought in from other suppliers, I think perhaps it is about time there was more transparency in terms of letting people know what’s probably going to carry on working indefinitely, and what might disappear at a moment’s notice, if a contract runs out, or a company goes bust – even one of which you’ve never heard.

3 Replies to “4TV – Freeview to the rescue? Or perhaps the OFT”

  1. The soon to be released 3View box looks very nice but their decision to not obtain Freeview certification (and I can see no digital tick on their site) combined with the points raised in this article make me very wary of purchasing it.

  2. Reading between the lines of this article, I’d agree that there is some advice being given here NOT to purchase any none Freeview certified piece of equipment!

  3. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that – but I do think people need to be certain of what exactly are the capabilities of a product they’re buying.

    The conclusion that some people have drawn from this is that I’m advising against the 3View box specifically, and I certainly am not doing that – I haven’t had one here to play with, nor have I yet asked them if they will be getting Digital Tick certification.

    However, they have confirmed that they will be able to decode the Freeview HD EPG, which is an agreement separate from the Freeview logo certification, so they aren’t reliant on other people for that very important aspect of the device.

    Ultimately, it’s a question of consumer confidence and certainty. If you know that a product has an agreement in place that allows it to decode the Freeview HD programme guide, and is DVB compliant, so it will pick up the standard guide too, then for some people that will be sufficient to make them happy.

    Others may prefer to look for a box with the various certification marks, which imply not only that, but also the presence of the interactive MHEG engine, and ability to accept updates broadcast over the air.

    A simple certification scheme is easiest for less technical buyers – it should give them certainty, even if they don’t understand the technologies involved.

    For those who are more aware of the implications of a different approach, I’m not going to advise against choosing a specific box about which I know very little. But I will stress the need to find out exactly what is included, what is omitted, and how much of the functionality relies on things over which you have no control.

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