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Ofcom: Sky’s Local TV proposals, Virgin Media and Freesat respond: Updated

Discussions between Ofcom and Sky have taken place over where the proposed new Local TV stations will appear on the broadcaster’s EPG.

Currently, it’s proposed that Freeview Channel 8 will be the new home for local TV, bumping ITV2 off to elsewhere in the programme guide. Naturally you’d assume that Sky, Virgin Media and Freesat, whose guides begin with 101 for BBC One, would follow suit placing Local TV on Channel 108.

This however doesn’t look to be the case. Sky’s own flagship channel Sky1 occupies position 106 on the EPG. This is followed by Sky Living and Sky Atlantic, the latter of which would be relegated to page two of the guide. Sky Atlantic is home to HBO-owned shows such as Broadwalk Empire and Game of Thrones which Sky has aggressively promoted; moving any of these channels off of the front page will undoubtedly mean a ratings drop.

Sky is instead proposing launch of a separate Local TV sub menu, accessible by pressing the yellow button on the Sky remote, detailed below. We’ve taken a look at Sky, Virgin Media and Freesat’s proposals for where the Local TV channels would lie on each EPG and how else they might be presented to viewers.

Sky

In accordance with its Method for allocating listings in the Sky EPG document, Sky:

“considers it appropriate to require that local TV channels are regionalised. Within the relevant genre, Sky intends to allocate the first channel number available in the relevant regional sub-bouquet. Our assumption at this time is that at least some local TV channels will meet the criteria for listing in the Entertainment genre, but this will need to be verified for each local TV channel. In the Entertainment genre, the first available channel number in UK regions other than in Wales is 117. In Wales the first available number in this genre is 134.”

In July, Sky will be carrying out a channel move of the whole Entertainment section, in which it “expects these channel numbers to be 224, 225 and 226.” So it’s quite a way off the front page where we’d find Local TV on Sky.

Alternatively, Sky is proposing that Local TV services will be accessed via the yellow button on its remote, side-stepping the issue of EPG placement.

From the yellow button a sub-menu of channels would open up, next to menus for on-demand and a search tool. From here you’d also be able to access and watch Local TV content from different regions in the UK.

Sky said that “We’ve created a strong set of proposals that will offer local TV providers the opportunity to reach millions of Sky homes. We’re now engaged in a constructive dialogue with Ofcom about how these proposals can help support their plans for local TV.” 

Virgin Media

Virgin Media is all for Local TV, but is keener on rolling out apps to promote the Smart TV functions of its TiVo set top box. Associate Counsel for Virgin Media Ronee Isaacson’s letter states:

“Virgin Media is strongly of the view that by far the best way of delivering local content is through an ‘App’. Virgin Media believes that this method of delivery is the appropriate way for a new innovative service such as this to be delivered. This is primarily because it enables the content provider to deliver richer more interactive experiences which are more engaging and in tune with where the market is developing…

In the event that Local programming and content is delivered as an application Virgin Media would support reserving one slot on the first page of the applications area of the TiVo user interface alongside (for example) BBC iPlayer, YouTube etc an alternative to a linear EPG position.”

As well as the iPlayer app, there’s apps such as BBC Sport for Virgin Media TiVo which give you access to live and on-demand coverage.

The advantage of app-based channels is that it would mean that a Londoner living in Liverpool would be able to access London local news from the app and vice versa.

Plus, if an app-based route is opted for, then there’s no reason why we couldn’t see Local TV apps popping up on connected Smart TVs as well. Whether UK viewers would bother connecting their Smart TV to the net is a different thing though…

The problem with going down the app road is that not all Virgin Media subscribers have the TiVo box. In this case, Virgin Media is in favour of allocating a local news channel to its linear EPG.

Isaacson mentions that there are currently “‘unallocated’ slots in and around the BBC News, Sky News and CNN channels which are not subject to live commercial discussions and accordingly could be made available for a local service.”

If a single channel is assigned for Local TV then what you can watch will be limited by your location – something which the TiVo app delivery route mitigates.


Freesat

Emma Scott, Managing Director for Freesat says in a letter that its “difficult to see how Freesat could deliver ‘front page’ prominence to Local TV services on the linear EPG without being detrimental to the existing public service channels [BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5],” but mentions that Local TV services would be high up in EPG listings on the understanding that “most local services will be included in the General Entertainment genre, based on their content.”

Freesat ranks channels classed as Entertainment on its EPG first, ahead of News & Sport which is followed by On-Demand and Special Interest channels.

Scott adds that Freesat “evisage[s] that Local TV services would be subject to a single listing, meaning that one Logical Channel Number (“LCN”) would be assigned for all Local TV Services and audience would have access to the relevant service for their locality.”

Currently, Freesat broadcasts free to air channels to wider regions that are bigger than the “smaller geographic regions proposed for Local TV.” Creating “more granular regions” would involve a lot of expensive work the cash for which Local TV services would be required to stump up.

When is Local TV coming to Freeview?

The closing date for when Local TV providers need to submit proposals for channels to Ofcom is the 13th of August 2012. 

It’s not expected that any Local TV channels will launch much soon after then and in any case, only 21 locations have been greenlighted for broadcast.  

An Ofcom spokesperson clarified to Recombu Digital that “On the different platforms, Ofcom has been given duties by Parliament to licence local TV channels on digital terrestrial television [Freeview]. The legislative framework does not have a ‘must carry’ requirement on any other platform. However, successful applicants can choose to make commercial arrangements to offer their services on satellite, cable and online.”

Update (1): this piece was updated as it previously stated that Local TV stations were slated to arrive on Freeview Channel 6 instead of Channel 8.

The lead paragraph was also amended to reflect that Ofcom has “held constructive discussions with Sky.”

Update (2): Sky soundbite on “constructive dialogue added”.

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