UK regulator Ofcom has warned that changing audience habits and rising costs could force a ‘tipping point’ for digital terrestrial television (DTT) in the next decade.

The warning came in an Ofcom report provided to the Government on the future of TV distribution.

3. Ofcom

Ofcom warns of ‘tipping point’ for digital terrestrial TV

The report found that people are spending less and less time watching TV broadcast over DTT, and says it might be difficult for broadcasters to sustain investment in DTT and the universal availability of TV services.

Ofcom noted that TV is increasingly being viewed online with the average person spending 25% fewer minutes per day watching broadcast TV in 2023 than in 2018.

This trend is expected to continue, with watching on scheduled TV channels through DTT and satellite forecast to drop from 67% of total long-form TV viewing in 2022, to 35% by 2034 and 27% by 2040.

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However, broadcasters are paying to distribute their content both online and via traditional infrastructures like DTT with costs rising. The less time people spend on DTT, the less cost effective per viewer it is.

For the first time, many broadcasters have told Ofcom that they foresee a tipping point at which it is no longer economically viable to support DTT in its current form.

If broadcasters that sustain the DTT ecosystem see a weaker case for new investment, Ofcom said they are likely to seek to cut costs. This could mean removing HD from Freeview, or reducing the number of channels the platform can broadcast.

Ofcom has set out three possible approaches to address the issue:

1. Investment in a more efficient but full DTT service. This option may well include supporting audiences with new equipment for more efficient broadcast signals.

2. Reducing DTT to a core service, for example the main public service and news channels. This would mean viewers mainly using the internet to access TV services, while also maintaining infrastructure that could deliver radio or TV, including if there are internet outages.

3. Move towards DTT switch-off in the longer term with a planned campaign to ensure people are confident and connected with internet services. Ofcom said this would take careful planning to ensure universality of public service media, with support for people so that no-one is left behind. This could have wider benefits for digital inclusion in other areas of society.

Ed Leighton, Ofcom’s Director of Strategy and Policy, said: “Digital Terrestrial Television faces big long-term challenges and audiences who rely on it deserve a solution that is sustainable and fit for the future. It requires a new vision and planning across industry and Government.

“We’ve set out three broad approaches for how this could be achieved in the long term, and we’ll continue to support Government with further analysis as it considers options for the future”.

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