Digital Terrestrial Television – Do not adjust your set

October 2012 saw Arqiva complete the largest broadcast engineering project in UK history, Digital Switch Over. In the five years since, how has the digital TV platform developed and what does the future hold?

24 October 2017 will mark the fifth anniversary of the biggest change in the UK television market for a generation, as the nation said goodbye to analogue signal and the Digital Switch Over (DSO) was complete.

In 2012, the DSO programme was the largest broadcast engineering project the UK had ever seen, with a combined 1,200 man years of work undertaken over a five year period resulting in the installation of around 3,700 new digital transmitters. It’s quite amazing to think how big a deal the switch over was, yet how quickly analogue TV has passed into the annals of history.

(A similar engineering programme is currently underway, on a slightly smaller scale, to clear the 700MHz frequency band for use by mobile data.)

Up until switchover began in 2007, TV customers in the UK who did not subscribe to a satellite or cable pay-TV service were, in the main, restricted to just the five traditional channels. At switchover, those customers were given access to around 40 channels, and as of last year this figure had more than doubled, with over 110 channels available on Freeview – a vast improvement in choice for viewers.

Universal, high quality and free

The continuing success of the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) platform since the switch over can be attributed to four key elements: 

  • One, it is universal. The network covers 98.5% of the UK population with around 19m households choosing to use DTT within their household
  • Two, it is high quality. The content offered by DTT features the main UK brands and most popular TV shows with 95% of the most watched programmes on Freeview (source: Digital UK), much of it available in HD
  • Three, it is free. It is installed in all TVs sold and the barriers to installing or using an aerial to access Freeview DTT content continue to be very low. Most UK homes have an outdoor aerial installed and indoor aerials can be purchased for less than £20
  • Four, the platform is successfully evolving through a hybrid DTT / internet-connected offer to ensure that it will continue to meet how viewers increasingly want to watch TV, including picking and choosing if they want to purchase additional content to add to their free to air viewing experience.

Shifting market

While 2012 was a milestone moment for how terrestrial television was delivered in the UK, the market was already changing in a number of other ways – in particular, catch-up, on-demand and streaming services had begun to make their mark. By this time, BBC’s iPlayer had been around for five years, Netflix had only just launched to UK viewers, and LoveFilm’s fledgling streaming service (which would later become Amazon Prime Video) was just a year old.

The choice and flexibility provided by IPTV services like these has posed a significant challenge to traditional pay-TV operators – yet the DTT platform is going from strength to strength.

UK Households are increasingly moving towards a pay-lite model, picking and choosing skinny bundles of premium content on top of a base of high quality free-to-air content, primarily delivered via the DTT platform – usually through a connected Smart TV using Freeview (i.e. Freeview Play) or a hybrid DTT/IPTV platform (i.e. BT TV, Talk Talk TV, EE TV or Sky’s Now TV) or supplementing the DTT viewing via a streaming stick.


The evidence shows that the vast majority of ‘cord-cutters’ (as they have become known) who move away from traditional pay-TV providers, have migrated to cheaper alternatives which in the majority of cases have DTT at their core.  Very few viewers have decided to go all the way and subscribe to SVOD or online-only content..

Only a few hundred thousand viewers claim to have a working Smart TV but do not use it for accessing a traditional TV platform (i.e. DTT via an aerial, cable or satellite) –  it’s a behaviour seen primarily in limited segments of the market, e.g. students or those in shared accommodation.

To this point, age is often cited as a reason why viewers are less interested in traditional, linear television. While it’s true that young people watch less TV in this format than older age groups, linear TV still accounts for the majority of their video time per day[†]. The difference, perhaps, is how the younger generation engages with that content, and the volume of additional video content (delivered on tablets and phones) they consume alongside it.

There is also ongoing evidence to suggest that as viewers age and their lifestyles change, they watch more linear TV – for example, as people have families favouring a more communal viewing experience (verses solo-viewing) is likely.

Now and into the future

On average people still spend well over 3 hours a day[‡][§] watching linear TV – a number not dissimilar to a decade ago, albeit with some changes in between.

The continued success of major television properties broadcast in the traditional manner – such as The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and Love Island – proves that the communal experience of watching and sharing television shows as and when they are first broadcast looks set to be with us for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, we can celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Digital Switchover in the knowledge that the offer viewers have by combining both DTT and IP content experiences is as strong as it has ever been, and the DTT platform is well positioned to serve the needs of viewers today and into the future.

[†] BARB, The Viewing Report April 2017

[‡] Thinkbox /  BARB, 2005-2016, individuals. TV set viewing within 7 days of broadcast.

[§] Ipsos Tech tracker Q1-4 2016