FreeviewPlus: Everything You Need To Know

After numerous delays and a lot of confusion, FreeviewPlus finally launches officially in Australia today. Is this Internet-enhanced catch-up service the future of TV viewing, or is it a case of too little too late?

The basic aim of FreeviewPlus is simple: to allow you to watch catch-up services from free-to-air channels using your TV and an internet connection, but without requiring a PC, tablet or other separate screen to do so. While this option already exists on "smart TVs", those generally require you to use a separate app for each network (an iView app for the ABC, an SBS On Demand app for SBS, and so on). FreeviewPlus promises a single interface which will let you browse any available shows. It's backed by the Freeview consortium, which comprises the major commercial TV broadcasters plus the ABC and SBS, so you can expect to see a lot of advertising for it in the coming weeks on free-to-air television.

If you're thinking the notion of a catch-up service doesn't sound particularly new or revolutionary, you'd be right. The notion of Freeview offering its own catch-up options has been in the air since at least 2011, but political and technical arguments have seen it repeatedly delayed. It finally launches today, but in truth it's rather hard to get excited about.

The technical details

To access FreeviewPlus, you'll need a suitably-equipped TV, set-top box or personal video recorder (PVR) sporting a FreeviewPlus logo. Right now, according to the Freeview site, only a handful of sets from Sony and LG actually meet the requirements, which is going to make for a muted launch. Your set (or box or PVR) will need to be hooked up to your home internet connection as well as to digital TV.

FreeviewPlus uses the HbbTV standard to provide access to catch-up TV from the ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine and Ten. The available content is essentially identical to what you'll find on the web-based versions of those catch-up services; merely the interface is different. (Networks can use HbbTV to provide additional content during broadcasts, but this isn't strictly speaking a FreeviewPlus-exclusive feature -- any TV set that supports HbbTV can view that content.)

While the service is free, it will use bandwidth. Standard-definition content (the majority of current catch-up) will use around 585MB an hour, while HD content requires around 1.6GB an hour. Freeview recommends a minimum of ADSL2 for catch-up. We certainly wouldn't recommend using 4G or 3G mobile broadband to view it.

Beyond watching those services, you can also set reminders for your favourite programs and browse suggestions of shows to watch in the future. (A PVR would also be able to record shows, we assume, though again it's not like you have to wait for Freeview for that option -- plug-in PVR options abound already.)

Will anyone care?

The biggest problem for FreeviewPlus is that it feels late and irrelevant. FreeviewPlus is far from the only way to watch catch-up services on your television. Many "smart TV" sets already have apps for this feature, though experience suggests that the majority of viewers never bother to use them.

You can easily stream any existing catch-up service from a plug-in dongle such as the Google Chromecast, which offers a far more flexible platform and doesn't require you to buy a whole new TV. If you have a media centre PC attached to your set, you can already view an enormous range of catch-up channels as well as record programs. If you're prepared to cough up for pay TV, Foxtel's IQ box (which will upgrade to IQ3 by the end of the year) offers well-designed recording and reminder services, as well as an increasing amount of content available on catch-up.

Arguably, the fact that FreeviewPlus is backed by major TV networks is more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Commercial networks in particular show massive contempt for their viewers these days, changing schedules on a whim, deliberately delaying telecasts to try and persuade you not to switch channels, and flouting the rules about how many ads they can show. The ABC and SBS generally treat viewers much better (SBS launched its own HbbTV-based service ahead of the official launch.)

A key lesson of the modern world is that no single media format dominates anymore. There's nothing inherently wrong with FreeviewPlus, but it's not going to restore broadcast TV to its former fortunes, any more than the lame and late original Freeview electronic program guide did.

The bottom line? If you're purchasing a new TV anyway, FreeviewPlus would be a nice additional bonus, but it's unlikely to drive your choice of set, and it certainly doesn't seem worth upgrading solely so you can access it. In other words, it's the new 3D.

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Comments

    My lack of care about this app stems from the fact that the content on Aus free to air stations doesnt interest me in the slightest.

    Pretty cool idea for people who do watch that content though.

    However as usual with Aus services the lack of supported devices kills them. They should be aiming for an app at launch that can run on all smart tv's , IOS devices and much more to get a supporter base

    Why wouldn't they launch a central web app for this? Make streaming with chromecast and other devices?

    I have foxtel with a pvr. I have a chromecast, I have a WD media player, my tv picks up free to air digital and has some limited online stuff built in. So why would I buy another box?

    In any case, I was looking at the catch up services the other day, quality is terrible. I was watching iview on my large tv and the quality was too poor for what I was watching. I was watching Media Watch. Got help me if I was going to watch Doctor Who or something.

    Last edited 02/09/14 11:31 am

      I think the reason may be because then they wont be able to charge any of the TV makers for licensing fees. Probably the same reason we wont see the app become available for older smart TVs that have the capability but there's no incentive for them to do so as the person already owns the TV.

      As I understand it, the only cooperation between the TV stations is that they all follow the HbbTV standard.

      In its simplest form, the TV signal includes a URL that the TV can open in a web browser overlay. Transparent portions of the web page will display the live TV signal underneath, allowing the presentation of overlay UIs. Any catch up services would just be displayed in this browser (probably with a TV optimised layout), presumably streamed from the same source as the current catch up web sites.

    I would have thought that high definition would be more of a priority than a service that most Australians either don't care about or do not have the quota/bandwidth for.

    Wait, have I missed something or are they not offering a browser version of this?

    This is not very well thought through.

    They should have made this compatible with Android and iOS at the bare minimum and Consoles such as XB360, XBOne, PS3 PS4 etc. I have a fairly elaborate setup at home anyway that runs a Tvheadend backend on a headless opennediavault server that is powered on 24/7 and also acts as my NAS and torrentbox. I can remotely set recordings and manage them even from work or my phone. Any device in my house capable of running XBMC can act as a frontend and mobile phones can all be used as remotes. This idea of buying a new tv or a new set top box simply for catchup tv is pointless. Just make an app..

    You can easily stream any existing catch-up service from a plug-in dongle such as the Google Chromecast, which offers a far more flexible platform and doesn’t require you to buy a whole new TV.

    Technically true, but at the moment you have to keep your screen on while doing this, as none of the channels apps support chromecasting at the moment. NONE.

    FreeviewPlus=meh

    I really don't need to buy an internet-capable TV or STB to catch up on missed programs when I can go to iView, SBS On Demand, TenPlay etc on my desktop, tablet and smartphone.

    Okay, it's nice to have and it conveniently houses each network's app into one grand app, but I just simply don't need a duplicated service.

    It would be great if I could disable this abomination on my new Panasonic Viera. EVERY time I change channels the FreeView Bar loads up on the top right, for every channel. EVERY TIME !!!
    Very annoying.

    I don't really get it and I'm not sure why this is necessary. I can record what I want now and play it back whenever I want. I can skip ads and search for the shows I want days in advance and program them to record, all without this Freeview Plus nonsense.
    What more am I getting or what more do I need? Despite there still being very little on that's worth watching, once I filter out the reality shit, copious annoying talent shows, sport and outdated and tired looking re-runs from the 70s, 80s and 90s, there's practically nothing worth watching. Most of the decent shows, (that I like at least), are still only on cable; Freeview is just a distraction of one bad show after another. Looking for something good to watch is like looking for a receipt that you accidentally threw in the garbage.

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