The big Freeview re-tune — more digital dregs?

This is an accompanying article to my contribution on this week’s episode of The Pod Delusion. You can listen below.

This week, Freeview has had one of its occasional retuning events. As new channels come and old channels go, the channel list becomes increasingly messy until the point where the powers-that-be decide enough is enough and it’s time to bring some organisation to it.

This sort of thing is a necessary evil of the digital era. But I feel sorry for those, particularly older, people who are used to setting up their television once when they buy it, then making do with two and a half channels for the rest of their lives.

A couple of weeks ago in the first episode of The Pod Delusion, James O’Malley spoke about the bonkers-sounding Conspiracy Channel. Sadly, I do not have Sky, so have been unable to sample its delights for myself. I must rely on humble Freeview for my post analogue switch-off telly fix.

Freeview brings a wealth of choice that simply did not exist on analogue terrestrial television. That is of course a good thing, and I personally cannot imagine going back to making do with the five analogue channels. But there is an element of truth to that Fry & Laurie sketch, where a dining Government minister is dumped on by the waiter with a “choice” of cutlery which turns out to be countless plastic coffee stirrers.

At the same time as this week’s big retune, the long-awaited launch of Quest, the new channel from Discovery, has taken place. Its original launch had already been long delayed and finally aborted at the last minute several months ago.

While a channel that promises something resembling quality struggled to get off the ground, there has been no shortage of utter crud getting airtime on Freeview. In fact, I struggled to think of any half-decent channels that had launched recently. So I decided to look it up, and see what changes had been made to Freeview over the previous year.

  • 10 September — Smile TV 2 (a mucky Babestation-style channel; closed on 19 March)
  • January — Rocks & Co (shopping channel)
  • 8 January — SuperCasino (roulette channel)
  • 8 January — NetPlay TV (broadcasting shopping programmes or infomercials)
  • 15 January — CNN International — 4 hours per day
  • 22 January — Dave+1
  • 2 February — Russia Today — 2 hours per day
  • 3 February — DirectGov (text service)
  • 12 March — Partyland
  • 1 April — Gems TV — 5 hours per day
  • 5 April — CNN increases hours to 7 hours per day, 2 hours of which is SuperCasino
  • 1 May — Gems TV closed down
  • 13 May — Smile TV 2 relaunched — 5 hours per day
  • 14 May — Quest — 14 hours per day — launch aborted!
  • 20 May — Virgin 1 goes 24 hours per day
  • 20 May — Virgin 1+1 — 12 hours per day
  • 23 May — Film4 extends hours
  • 1 July — Create & Craft (shopping channel) launches — 5 hours per day
  • 4 July — Russia Today gets second slot — 2 hours per day
  • 15 July — Big Deal (quiz channel) launches — 7 hours per day
  • 27 August — Price-drop tv returns
  • 27 August — Smile TV 3
  • 27 August — Babestation
  • 30 September — Quest launched

So a couple of channels — Film4 and Virgin 1 — have extended their hours. A couple of news channels have been able to find scraps of space here and there. I say news channels, though in the case of Russia Today, propaganda may be a more accurate description. These channels broadcast at quite obscure hours. It is certainly an interesting spin on the concept of “24 hour news”.

Beyond that, the vast majority of new Freeview channels are pure trash. There are two new “+1” channels, replaying exactly what was broadcast on a channel an hour ago. By my reckoning, there are now at least five such channels on Freeview, which doesn’t seem like the best use of limited bandwidth.

Beyond that, there is a collection of shopping channels, gambling channels, quiz channels and adult channels. Frankly, this is the sort of stuff you expect at the arse end of the darkest nooks of the Sky EPG. I am not quite sure this is what they had in mind when the digital revolution was promised.

The Babestation channels have long been a fixture on Sky. But their presence on Freeview is relatively novel. They are interesting for the fact that it hasn’t taken long for four of them to crop up. It is surprising because their appeal seems rather limited to me.

If you have never seen it (er, not that I’m an expert, of course), basically the format is quite simple. A few glamour models who couldn’t present their way out of a paper bag sit on a couch trying to encourage people to phone in for a mucky chit-chat.

Once someone with more money than sense takes the bait, the microphone is switched off, and some cheap-sounding music is turned up. The women proceeds to talk dirty on the phone — without the viewer being able to hear a word. They sort of wriggle around on the couch in a way that I assume is supposed to look sexy, but it really just makes them look vaguely like they need the toilet.

In short, it is the modern-day equivalent of the dodgy services advertised on business cards left in piss-stained telephone boxes, only with the beady eye of Ofcom overseeing proceedings. There is nothing extreme in the slightest about these channels. You wonder what goes through the mind of people who would sooner pay through the nose to sample such services when you could quite easily find more enticing free porn on the internet.

Up until this week’s retune, the positioning of one of these channels — Partyland — in the channel list was certainly interesting. It was channel number 50, but with no channels occupying numbers 51-69, the next channel up was CBBC. Even though the broadcasting hours do not clash, I can imagine plenty of children just pressing the down button on their remote and coming across a strange new channel promising a party land. It certainly would provide a more eye-popping rite of passage than accidentally stumbling across the frilly knickers section of the Argos catalogue.

It remains to be seen whether these channels remain a long-term fixture on the Freeview platform. One trashy genre which sadly appears to have stood the test of time is quiz channels. These late-night televisual travesties are hypnotically awful. A slightly desperate presenter will appear to engage you in a stare-out competition while goading you into answering questions with non-existent answers.

Even though they still live on, such quiz channels are not quite as prevalent as they used to be. They were a major victim of the collapse in trust that broadcasters faced a couple of years ago. Into the vacuum came the gambling channels.

It’s noted that this sort of programming tends to be on late at night, especially at the weekend. In other words, they are aimed squarely at the post-pub market.

The morals are pretty dubious. The clear idea is to target people whose judgement has been impaired by their alcoholic consumption, goading people into phoning premium rate phone lines when they perhaps shouldn’t. In the case of the gambling channels, it could be said that they intend to capture a particular section of the population that may have problems with addiction.

This is not quite the vision of digital television that was sold to the public. It is funny how most of the extra “choice” that has been brought into our living rooms revolves around extracting large amounts of cash from our wallets.

7 comments

  1. My parents have had this misery when the switchover occurred. Thinking it would be all okay, we discovered that while the box will pick up the channels, the Guide Plus for recording relies on an analogue signal to work – and as a consequence, they cannot record anything. As there is no firmware upgrade, they have to junk a perfectly good box and buy a new one.

    Not best pleased…

    And, yes, most of it is trash.

  2. Why is it that so few people can understand this?

    Duncan, please don’t ever take work with a mainstream broadcaster. They will brainwash this stuff out of you. You also clearly enjoy doing this – if you get paid for it, you will find it a lot less fun.

    The Beekeeper

  3. Duncan

    I refuse to pay copious amounts of money to get Sky – I have sampled before – when I don’t watch enough TV to merit that amount of money. So when I moved into my new house this year, I got Freesat installed. I bought a few SD boxes (£50 each) for a few rooms and an HD box for the main TV. Got a dish and wiring installed which was a fairly biggish outlay, but pay no more monthly charges.

    Freesat channels are fairly similar to Freeview, without any Virgin or Sky channels, who obviously refuse to participate in a scheme that threatens their stranglehold. Film Four, the Zone channels, all the usual stuff. I can also get BBC HD and ITV HD on my main box, where I can often watch Euro football. Interestingly, you can get a Freesat ‘auto’ tune, excluding most of the garbage channels, or you can manually tune in about 400 channels – most of them dreadful. However, this is a safer option for the kids.

    I’ve had Freesat for 6 months now and would thoroughly recommend it if you don’t watch loads of TV.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Andrew BOD. I think Freesat is definitely an option to consider, although due to my love of motorsport when I get the chance I think I will take Sky so that I can get Eurosport. 🙂

  5. I think my BT Vision box is playing up due to the switchover, i haven’t been able to pull off a retune yet. But, to be honest, I only watch about three programmes a week – no Channel 5 is no great loss to me!