United Kingdom: BBC, ITV unite for ‘Free’ HD

The BBC and ITV teamed up to launch a free terrestrial HD service known as Freesat on May 6 that will be accessible to consumers with HD sets and set-top boxes. (“Free HD” or any other “free” television service in Britain must be qualified to include the fact that all TV consumers in the United Kingdom pay mandatory “license fees” to use their TV sets.)

ITV Chairman Michael Grade, a former BBC official, was joined by BBC Director-General Mark Thompson this week to publicize Freesat as the “final piece in the digital jigsaw,” according to Grade. The BBC and ITV will each offer one HD channel, respectively, via Freesat—along with the dozens of other TV (and radio) stations they already provide. Freesat’s satellite footprint covers about 98 percent of the United Kingdom.

While the HD development provides a value-added aspect to the Freesat service, it also competes with BSkyB satellite, whose subs pay monthly fees to receive the DBS firm’s menu of HD channels, in addition to buying or renting receive-equipment. Unlike Sky or cable HD subs, Freesat customers only need to purchase the equipment, which is not exactly cheap: Freesat STBs with HD capabilities go for about $236 (plus an installment fee of $160)—as well as buying a satellite dish, according to the BBC. (A Freesat box without HD cost still costs under $100.)

In its May 6 announcement, the BBC promised to show more than 300 hours of the Beijing Olympics this summer in HD, and ITV holds the rights to Britain’s international soccer matches.