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.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.