Freeview Comes At A Cost

Freeview is proud of its infiltration of people’s homes and stewardship of broadcast TV, but GARY STEEL is over both.

 

Back in January, Freeview issued a rah-rah piece of PR proclaiming its success, especially since it launched FreeviewPlus, which allows viewers of broadcast television to record programmes, or flip to ‘on demand’ services.

FreeviewPlus had seen “consistent growth” since launching in July 2015, said Freeview General Manager Sam Irvine, who crowed that “there are now over 100,000 FreeviewPlus enabled devices throughout the country, and over 220,000 Freeview Plus devices have been sold.”

Irvine continued: “In a complex world where we find ourselves increasingly overwhelmed by choice, Freeview provides refreshingly simple solutions. Our range of options, all free, give Kiwis the ability to choose what best suits their viewing needs – whether they want to be able to watch live TV, On Demand, or to record.”

What Irvine doesn’t mention is that viewers are rapidly deserting broadcast television altogether, although the press release does hint at that concern. “It’s interesting that some viewers still think that if you’re not paying a regular subscription fee, you’re not getting the best content, which just isn’t the case. Viewers can find 96 of New Zealand’s top 100 programmes on Freeview.”

But surely it’s not the perception that the best programmes are only available via paid subscription, but instead the reality that broadcast TV continues to dumb down the way it presents programmes with ever more frequent ad breaks and intrusive visual promos for other programmes during key scenes, and the way the same channels will rip off a series half way through and give it a holiday without even the old-fashioned nicety of letting their viewers know what the hell is going on.

No, what people are tired of is broadcast TV that is so disrespectful to its audience that it assumes they’re imbeciles.

But really, even Irvine’s argument that most of the top programmes are screened on broadcast television doesn’t hold water, because the big magnet of subscription services are the kind of programmes that would never win in a popularity contest, yet they’re often the best quality content. Broadcast television has for so long tried to mainstream and streamline its content to a particular beige, average suburban audience that it’s forgotten that there are literally hordes of avid viewers who do in fact enjoy great drama, or great comedy, completely uninterrupted by ads and promos, and available to watch whenever, wherever, and without the kind of glitches we get via the current ‘on demand’ so-called services.

I’m not a great fan of the subscription model, because different companies end up offering different programmes, which in the end means that viewers miss out on a good proportion of the programmes they should have access to, simply because they can’t afford subscriptions with every provider. There’s something undemocratic about that. And I do like the concept of free television, or at least, quality television being available to all. But successive governments never gave us the quality channel that we deserved, and TVOne now could be any channel anywhere with a bold and brassy commercial prerogative.

But at the same time, since my Spark broadband account came with a free Lightbox and Netflix subscriptions, I’ve started having an absolute ball with television for the first time in years. Suddenly, it seems like there’s an infinite universe of quality television at my fingertips, and the interface is superb: it’s really easy to navigate, search, find and even come back later to watch the another section of the same programme. And even though I have fairly bog standard VDSL, Netflix especially has so far been absolutely glitch-free.

Freeview, on the other hand, is an exercise in frustration. Since 2008 I’ve lived out in the country, so my only choice for free-to-air television has been a Freeview-approved Dish brand satellite receiver/recorder. I’ve been through a few, and they’ve all been (overpriced) junk. Since this time, I’ve moved up north and bought two FreeviewPlus receiver/recorders: one for the main household and one for the downstairs apartment.

I figured that by the time FreeviewPlus came into being, that Dish (which seems to hold a monopoly on Freeview products) might have upped its ante. To some degree it has: at least the FreeviewPlus booklets are written in semi-intelligible English, and they were easy to connect to the Wi-Fi. But the essential issues haven’t changed: I’m convinced that these boxes are rebranded pieces of junk that are probably worth about $20, but sell for more than $200. There’s so much not to like about Dish receiver/recorders that it’s hard to know where to start. The remotes are better than the tiny fiddly little things that used to come with Dish units, but they’re still impossible for your fingers to find their way around in a dark room, and that leads to the irritating problem of accidentally hitting the wrong button and annoying the wife when suddenly the show has disappeared from the screen, necessitating lights-on and five minutes of mucking around with the remote to figure out what happened. Then there’s the 1TB of memory, which is overkill for a unit that can only record in standard resolution. I end up with loads of programmes recorded but unwatched, and I’ve only ever used about two percent of the available memory. You could say that it’s better than the other way around, but… They’re still really fiddly to install, and even my electrician told me about the problems he’s encountered when people screw the aerial jacks in and get it slightly wrong, thereby compromising the satellite connection. Why was my electrician there? Well, the Dish box in the apartment downstairs keeps on losing its connection, and every time the sparky turns up it’s “nothing wrong with it mate”, but then I’ll turn it on the next day and there’s no signal.

The most annoying aspects of the Dish box however, probably have little to do with Dish. One: the Freeview weekly listings, and Two: OnDemand. It’s quite common for the Freeview listings not to even give us a complete week’s programmes on particular channels. In such cases, it will merely say something like ‘no listings’. This makes for an entirely desultory experience when you’re trying to book a week’s programmes in advance, and don’t want to accidentally miss anything. The way the listings are set out, if the programme description or even the title of the programme are long, they just disappear, which is clearly not optimal. And then there are the little glitches that could be the result of some fuckup with the Freeview listings, or with the Dish itself. What happens with monotonous regularity is that programmes I’ve booked to record just ‘unbook’ themselves. This even happens with the TV3 news, for instance. All of a sudden, one day, there’s just no news, for no apparent reason, and no record of there ever having been a booking. This rather big glitch has resulted in us missing out on key episodes of several programmes, and even giving up on a few series’ that we were watching, because you don’t always realise they’ve stopped recording, and if you’re a bit behind in watching…

And then there’s that tragic so-called “the internet of television” that calls itself OnDemand. Sad as.

When the Dish is actually connecting to OnDemand (for some reason it regularly disconnects, which is usually sorted by pulling the plug on the Dish for a proper reboot), it can be a horribly frustrating way to spend your ‘leisure’ time. The thing about watching the telly is that it’s downtime after a long day, and the last thing you want to be doing is troubleshooting.

We’ve tried watching several series via TVNZ OnDemand, and eventually gave up. It’s as though the TVNZ OnDemand technology was invented back in the days of dial-up. There are so many things wrong with it that I hardly know where to start, but it’s laggy as all hell, and when it suddenly stops when it’s not supposed to, you’re likely to find that the ads take over. In fact, I’ve repeatedly had the miserable experience of shooting back to the beginning of a programme just to get it moving again, then trying to fast forward, and what ends up happening when you try to fix a stuck programme is that you get every ad that was ever made inflicting itself on you.

On top of that, TVNZ OnDemand ads are loud, and on top of that, they look and sound awful: the sound is all fudged at the beginning of each ad, sometimes you have to endure the same ad multiple times on one programme, or even multiple times on one ad break! While the quality of the picture is better than that of the satellite signal we get when we record programmes from broadcast TV, at least that’s a less enervating way to watch. Potentially, OnDemand could be a great thing, but I’ve rejected it entirely, which means my purchase of two Dish FreeviewPlus machines was a total waste of hard earned.

Oh, and don’t even mention TV3’s lame excuse at ‘on demand’ television. Please.

So, there you have it. I’m sure there are a multitude of sins I haven’t covered in all of this, but you get the idea. Sam Irvine might consider FreeviewPlus to be successful, but surely, this is a captive audience who can’t afford subscription TV and have no other option.

PS, For the past few months I’ve been doing the Air Bnb thing with my downstairs beach apartment. Not one of my guests has wanted to watch broadcast television, opting instead for Wi-fi connection so they can get whatever they want on their tablets.

 

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