Moving out from behind the paywall: Why broadcasters are embracing free-to-air

As publishers increasingly slip behind a paywall, broadcasters are starting to emerge from behind theirs. What benefits are they seeing, and will more follow suit?

UKTV recently began to broadcast its ‘Home’ channel on free-to-air (FTA) digital terrestrial television (DTT). Whilst this alone might not sound like a huge deal, it means the media company now has as many channels on FTA as it does behind a paywall. It has reached tipping point, so the question now is what will come next? On which platform will UKTV’s next channel feature and how will the balance be tipped? And will other broadcasters follow suit?

Personally, I think we’ll soon see UKTV and other broadcasters lean more towards a free-to-air strategy than a paid one, continuing with the hybrid model. Here’s why.

Hybrid theory

The key to what I mentioned above is that of a hybrid strategy, where big media companies like UKTV spread their channels out - some behind a paywall and others on free-to-air. This works because the two markets are very different indeed.

Channels sat behind a paywall typically provide premium content; brand new material for which viewers are willing to pay. Their free-to-air counterparts, meanwhile, deliver content that doesn’t quite match it in desirability – maybe because it’s a little older.

For a good example of how this works in reality, look no further than Discovery, which operates a hybrid model. Quest is one free-to-air channel in Discovery’s portfolio, for which 84 per cent of all viewing figures come from Freeview. Much of the content broadcast on Quest is five or six years old, but that needn’t mean it’s been seen before. Though it’s a little older, this content has never been available to a FTA audience before – only by those who had paid Discovery channels.

For channels like Home that broadcast home improvement shows, the audience is perfectly suited to FTA.

Additionally, Sony launched its pre-school channel Pop on national Freeview this year. From its initial introduction in March 2014, Pop was carried on the local TV multiplex, broadcast only to those in covered areas. Then, in April 2016, it moved to a wider-coverage, nationwide Freeview multiplex. As a result, the channel opened up and is now available to more than 90 per cent of the country.

Return

Of course, many other media companies have been watching UKTV with great interest.

This move into a 50:50 split between FTA and pay TV isn’t just an intriguing venture – people want to know where it will put UKTV in terms of return.

American groups are among them, being new entrants to the UK market and typically used to solely operating behind paywalls. This trend will show them ways of monetising rights in older content for free-to-air.

TV advertising revenues are also as strong as they’ve ever been (up 7.4%* in the UK last year), which is furthering the appeal of going FTA (*Thinkbox).

That said, going completely FTA isn’t suitable for all broadcasters, especially those with the most premium content.

Organisations with premium sports rights and prime US series content and who have used paywalls since they first started are unlikely to embrace the trend. However, all other broadcasters are increasingly seeing their business models and income streams come under threat by the growing popularity of this hybrid approach – so will rightly consider a change. Whilst broadcasters who have already embraced this hybrid approach are continuing to see that FTA is the best place for reaching mass market audiences with high-quality content. 

Going ahead with this approach though is something of a tightrope walk for broadcasters; but few have gone on to regret it.

It’s worth noting, however, that building a free-to-air audience is a long-term commitment and it takes time to really see the benefits. Those who have been bold and stepped into the FTA space have typically done well over time, and when these benefits do come, they can be substantial.

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