Tuesday December 3, 2002
Freeview, the new digital TV service backed by the BBC and offering 30 channels free to viewers, is already looking more successful than ITV Digital, the Granada and Carlton TV service that went bust with debts of more than £1bn this summer.
Retailers are struggling to keep up with the huge demand for Freeview boxes, with industry estimates suggesting 65,000 adapters to receive the ITV Digital replacement were sold in the first two weeks following launch.
It compares very favourably with ITV Digital, which attracted just 110,000 subscribers after 16 weeks following its launch as OnDigital in November 1999.
And manufacturers say the service is "more popular than anyone predicted" as they struggle to keep up with demand.
The BBC, which launched the service in partnership with transmission company Crown Castle, today hailed the launch of Freeview as a massive success.
Set-top boxes, some the size of an alarm clock, cost just £100 and offer viewers the chance to extend the number of channels available to them without a hefty annual subscription to Sky TV or a cable company.
In just over six weeks since it launched, the corporation said it had received one million inquiries through a telephone helpline and website from viewers keen to receive the service.
Reliable industry sources suggest that 30,000 adapters, which give viewers 30 free channels in return for buying a set-top box costing between £99 and £150, were sold in the week following launch.
A further 35,000 were sold the following week and they have continued to fly out of the shops since, with many high street stores sold out. The encouraging figures will provide a boost to culture secretary Tessa Jowell's much-derided analogue switch off target of 2010.
"Of course it's early days yet, but we're delighted that the first signs for Freeview are so positive," said the BBC marketing director, Andy Duncan, who has been handed the task of marketing the service.
"And we're very pleased that already so many more people can watch the BBC's digital channels. People are clearly responding well to the idea of free, simple digital television," he added.
But retailers face an uphill battle to restock shelves in the run-up to Christmas, with many confirming they have waiting lists for the equipment and are selling out of receivers as fast as they come in.
"It is proving exceptionally popular. It's more popular than anyone predicted it would be. I know they're going out of the shops as fast as they come in and it's going to be a challenge to keep up with demand," said a spokeswoman for Pace, one of the main manufacturers of the Freeview boxes.
She added that, after a difficult year for digital television with the closure of ITV Digital and the debt woes of cable giants NTL and Telewest, the launch of Freeview had provided a much needed boost to the sector.
If the boxes continue to sell at the same rate, there could be up to 250,000 new digital viewers by the end of the year. In addition, there are estimated to be at least 800,000 former ITV Digital viewers using their old set-top boxes to receive the new service.