Freeview's second phase of EPG deployment involves a leaner but more feature rich EPG, and soon it won't require a separate set top box at all, but will be integrated with TVs from 'one of the largest television manufacturers' in May. I sat down for an interview with Freeview CEO Liz Ross yesterday to cover off what's new in the world of Freeview, and more specifically the 'new' Freeview EPG. It officially launched yesterday but unless you've purchased an STB or PVR with the new 'Freeview EPG' logo on it, or had a box that could take a firmware upgrade from the manufacturer, you may not be in line to get it. The existing Freeview logo is below on the left; the new EPG logo on the right.
The new MHEG-5 based EPG rollout will leave some previously-Freeview compliant boxes behind; most notable of these would be TiVo, which meets the requirements for the first round of Freeview licensing but not those for the new EPG. The new EPG could also lead to in-store issues with branding; if you see the standard Freeview logo, that's just a first stage product; if you want the new Freeview EPG, you'll need a box that comes with this logo. There's no hard and fast rule for on-device labelling, and Ross noted that it's well worth checking with your manufacturer if there's a firmware update to shift a first phase box into a second phase one, but that it should be fairly prominent on new product packaging.
One of the more impressive aspects of the new EPG is that it signficantly reduces the bandwidth needed for transmission. This is important for an over-the-air signal as distinct from one that could be delivered through broadband; according to Freeview's Technical Manager Daniel Palmisani, it's around one quarter of the data size that the previous 2010 Freeview EPG used to be.
I had a brief test of the EPG — and on the surface it's a competent enough 8-day EPG, although it's not exactly redefining EPGs or anything; to borrow a phrase that's often overused, it 'just works'. Under the hood the EPG uses CRIDs (Content Reference Identifiers) to define each program; this allows an STB or PVR to track a program if it's shifted in broadcast time to record or alert you correctly, subject to the capabilities of the box in question.
The Bush PVR used for the demo was capable of TV recording, and the new EPG offers one-off recording or series link recording, with the promise that, because the EPG data is continuously transmitted as part of the digital TV signal, you'll never miss a program even if it is rescheduled or runs late or long; the EPG in concert with a PVR box will work to record programs anyway. While the signal is broadcast as part of the ordinary general signal, it's encrypted with a whitelist of 'approved' models, so non-Freeview boxes (or those that Freeview chooses to rescind licensing from) can't access the new EPG data and format, according to Ross.
One of the criticisms of Freeview has been the mandatory lockdown on content recorded on Freeview boxes, as well as the prohibition on ad-skipping buttons to gain Freeview compliance. I put these questions to Liz Ross; here's her replies:
'The fact that it's free, the programming is free, the range of programming and the choice is free — that's the business model of free to air, and it has to be funded by something, and that's advertising. It would not be to the benefit of the free to air broadcasters to allow all Australians to have an automatic ad skip feature when that advertising is funding the programming. If we didn't have the advertising, we wouldn't have the programming. Free to air has invested billions into production last year, and that money has to come from somewhere. No, we won't skip ads, because that's what funds our great programming.'
On non-portability of programs on Freeview PVRs
'That's really to do with the copyright and network requirements, remembering that what goes to air on networks — they have that for a period of time, and then it goes on to someone else. So the big production houses in the US are selling to a free to air network on the basis of 'this is how long you have this content — and that's it. And after you air it, it's going from there to DVD or elsewhere.' There's a whole ecosystem there that has to be supported.'
What's in Freeview's future? Ross states that it's not just a brand that'll be seen on STBs and PVRs; they're in talks with major television manufacturers and expect to make an announcement on a Freeview-branded TV 'sometime in May'. Talks are continuing with 'many' TV manufacturers, so it's expected that there may be a range of TVs soon with Freeview EPG logos on the packaging.
Further to that, Freeview's looking into the potential of integrating other technologies into the core Freeview offering, possibly including catch-up TV, social TV, aggregated second screen strategies and program recommendations built into the EPG. All of those ideas are currently up in the air, however — implementing them is a process that'll involve heavy discussion amongst the owners of Freeview — the free to air networks themselves.