British broadcasters bring free linear channels to Freely streaming service

Public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom are banding together to create a new streaming service that unifies free linear versions of broadcast channels and on-demand content in a single experience.

The service, called Freely, will see dozens of channels from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Paramount-owned Channel 5 distributed on one service baked into newer-model smart TVs, starting next year.

Freely is being developed by Everyone TV, a joint venture operated by the four public broadcasters that also oversees Freeview, the digital broadcast platform in the U.K., and a similar, satellite-based service called Freesat.

Between them, Freeview and Freesat offer nearly 200 national television channels and radio stations through their platforms, while on-demand content is limited to app-based services like BBC iPlayer, ITVX and the streaming version of Channel 4. Both Freeview and Freesat offer devices that marry over-the-air or satellite-delivered linear channels with streaming services, and the Freeview platform is widely supported on smart TV sets with an integrated digital tuner.

At the moment, no similar streaming alternative exists: While cable companies and Comcast's Sky satellite service offer streaming versions of their platforms, those service charge monthly fees on top of the mandatory annual television tax that British households and businesses must pay if they watch or record live broadcast channels. (The television tax, called a license, primarily funds the BBC's TV and radio channels.) The present-day situation means those who are increasingly gravitating toward streaming apps for their linear and on-demand content needs are having to do so by bouncing around services.

Freely is being designed to remove that friction by offering the same core channels found on Freeview and Freesat. In doing so, the officials behind Freely and Everyone TV hopes that Freely replicates the linear content experience that is already found on the other two services, but without the need to install an over-the-air antenna or satellite dish.

"This new development is a reflection of the fact that a growing number of UK viewers are watching content online, but still want easy access to the shared experience of live TV," Jonathan Thompson, the CEO of Everyone TV, said in a statement. "Our aim is to ensure that all viewers have access to a free, aggregated live TV experience that champions British content and is delivered in a way that suits audience needs and preferences. Every one of us should be able to share in the best of British ideas and creativity on TV."

Fewer Watching Linear TV

For the broadcasters, the streaming push is also part of an overall strategy of survivability: As in other countries, British TV viewers are increasingly moving away from linear television in favor of more-convenient streaming options. A survey released early last year showed around one in four British TV viewers have abandoned linear television entirely, while another 25% of TV viewers say they've scaled back how much live TV they're watching in any given week.

The trend of TV viewers moving away from traditional linear TV transcends age brackets, with the majority of young viewers between the ages of 18 to 34 saying they're spending at least two hours a day watching streaming content, while nearly half of those between the ages of 35 and 54 affirming the same, according to a survey released by The Trade Desk last September. Meanwhile, 54% of adults aged 35 to 54 are watching less linear TV, the survey showed.

"The TV landscape is undergoing a transformation that’s redefining the viewing experience, as well as the advertising industry as a result," Dave Castell, the lead analyst for TV partnerships at The Trade Desk, said in a statement. "The rise of streaming has ushered in a new model of TV consumption, in which every content creator is providing the consumer with choice — and consumers expect to watch what they want, when they want, and how they want."

The decline in live TV's audience is particularly problematic for ITV and Channel 4, whose broadcast activities are entirely funded by advertising (Channel 4 is publicly-owned, but receives no money from the television license). The same financial headwinds that have impacted advertising rates in other parts of the world have also caused a slowdown in related revenue for ITV and Channel 4, as marketers shift their budgets toward connected TV services.

Proponents of linear television, including Everyone TV, say the broadcast networks still have something to offer British viewers: Collective cultural moments that can only be experienced through live TV events like sports tournaments.

"These national TV moments...are instances of an increasingly rare circumstance of common cause, often crossing the boundaries of age, class or enthusiasm," Thompson wrote in a blog post last week. "They are made accessible and available to all through universally-available, free TV, and they attract audiences of a magnitude that...are an exception rather than the rule."

On Monday, executives at the public service broadcasters affirmed the forthcoming Freely service is intended to help bring the same magic of live TV to viewers who have married themselves to streaming services.

"Streaming TV is increasingly the new normal for audiences, particularly young viewers, so it has never been more important for trusted [public service broadcasting] content to be readily available to everyone, for free," Alex Mahon, the CEO of Channel 4, said in a statement.