After taking us for granted for decades, Australia's free-to-air broadcasters have been trying to win us back by embracing catch up TV and live streaming. This week, Freeview finally delivered on its long-promised cross-network streaming service. But is it any good? Here are our first impressions.
Putting most free-to-air broadcasts at your fingertips, most of the time, Freeview FV is a rare sign of cooperation between Australia's squabbling TV networks. The free app is available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, although there doesn't seem to be a tablet-friendly Android interface so it's clunky on large devices.
Launch the app and you're not required to create an account but Freeview FV does ask to check your location, otherwise you can manually enter your postcode so it knows which broadcast market you're in.
Coming to you live
On the home page you're presented with a scroll-down list of live channels, or a three-by-four grid on the iPad (three-by-three in landscape mode). Tapping into the Freeview Electronic Program Guide data, each channel offers a thumbnail and program title – sometimes with the series and episode number – along with a progress bar so you can see how much of the show you've missed.
The app offers 19 live channels, including the primary channel from all five major broadcasters and most of their secondary channels but not the home shopping channels. Unfortunately community television doesn't get a look in but some community broadcasters like Melbourne's Channel 31 have already launched their own mobile apps as they prepare to be kicked off the airwaves.
The Freeview app's live streaming is on a slight delay – between 30 and 60 seconds – but that's the nature of the technology rather than a deliberate move by the networks.
The picture quality looks good, even on a mediocre sub-4Mbps DSL connection, and the default High video setting chews through around 500MB per hour. If necessary you can override this and drop down to Medium or Low video quality, with the option to stream over Wi-Fi or mobile broadband.
On the big screen
Freeview and the broadcasters often like to dictate what we can and can't do, so it's good to see that the app works with Apple's AirPlay so you can stream video to an Apple TV instead of watching on a handheld device. There's no built-in Chromecast support, but you can also fling video to a Chromecast using Android's built-in Cast mirroring option under the Display settings – it's available on some devices like the Nexus 7 but the picture isn't as smooth as AirPlay streaming.
Of course you'll already find catch up apps for the Apple TV and many other set-top boxes, but not all of them include the ability to stream live channels so it's a handy option to have at your disposal.
Apart from live streaming the new app lets you call up the TV guide, create favourites and set reminders, but you can't remotely schedule recordings on a Freeview-compatible PVR like the AerialBox T2200.
The app also lets you browse through catch up listings, with cross-network search, but for you to watch catch up TV the Freeview app needs to launch the separate mobile catch up app for that particular network. This is where the fragmented nature of the Freeview ecosystem breaks down – clicking on The Big Bang Theory in the Freeview app launches the 9Now app but dumps you at the home screen – it doesn't start streaming that episode or even take you to the The Big Bang Theory home page.
Building deep links into the five catch up apps would obviously be a major technological challenge, but that's little consolation to viewers who expect things to just work. There's not really any point in launching the Freeview app in order to watch catch up, it's faster to simply launch the network's catch up app and then search for the show. Of course, not all of the standalone catch up apps support AirPlay streaming.
One quirk of both the iOS and Android Freeview apps is that they also insist on launching the 9Now app if you want to watch live streams from the Nine Network. You need to create an account to use 9Now but after this jumping from Freeview to 9Now is seamless and it takes you directly to the live stream for that channel. Thankfully 9Now also works with AirPlay streaming.
We'll be back right after these messages
Remember you're watching live free-to-air television, so you're expected to sit through the ad breaks. You can pause the stream but you can't skip forward or backwards, even if you're trailing behind the live broadcast.
You're watching the ads in the broadcast signal, rather than relying on the mobile app to serve up streaming ads like the FreeviewPlus HbbTV apps. One upside of this is that you don't have to suffer through the clunky hand-over to the ad server which occasionally causes the HbbTV apps to stutter and even crash. Another upside is that you're not forced to watch streaming ads every time you change channel.
Perhaps the biggest frustration with the Freeview app is the fact that streaming sports rights get in the way, leaving you in the lurch if you want to watch live sport when a telco like Telstra has acquired the rights. To be fair that's not Freeview's fault, it's the nature of our disjointed broadcast rights deals which also impact on streaming radio services.
What's more surprising is that Network Ten blocks a lot of other live streaming content during the day – from talk shows like Dr Phil to ancient sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Hogan's Heroes. It's not restricted to the Freeview app, those live shows are also missing from the Tenplay app and website – which makes you question whether Ten is really getting into the spirit of live streaming.
The Freeview FV app is a respectable first effort, if somewhat overdue, and to be fair most of its frustrations aren't directly Freeview's fault. The streaming blackouts for live sport are due to rights restrictions, although these restrictions are likely to foil viewers when they're most likely to want to watch live broadcasts on the run.
Meanwhile the disjointed nature of jumping from the Freeview app to the five catch up apps might have been avoided if Freeview had shown more initiative and had this service up and running years ago with the backing of every broadcaster. Freeview has been talking about a cross-platform service for seven years but Australia's broadcasters have been far too busy bickering amongst themselves to make it happen, or even present a united front against foreign raider Netflix.
For now Freeview FV is a step in the right direction, but there's a long way to go before Australia's free-to-air networks can win back the viewers it's lost through decades of taking us for granted and playing us for fools.