Free to Air
Free to Air TV in the UK
As a result of years of growth in the UK TV industry, there was a confusing mix of available channels – largely depending on where you lived – before digital TV arrived to bring free to air television into the 21st century. But even that transition wasn’t entirely smooth. The original digital TV service was run by ITV, but after that failed in 2001, a new company was formed – a collaboration between the major broadcasters BBC, ITV, All 4 and Sky, along with Arqiva (which builds the actual transmitters).
This new, consolidated service was given the name “Freeview” to emphasise the fact that it was available to all without a subscription or a satellite dish. Instead, all, you need is a regular TV with a digital tuner (or an older TV with a set top box attached) and a standard TV antenna.
Freeview completely replaced traditional analogue TV in 2012, and depending on your location in the UK (and the quality of your reception) you can get close to 100 Free to Air TV channels, 16 HD channels and over 30 radio stations, all free of charge.
Watching Live Sport on Freeview
While some major sporting events like the 2019 Cricket World Cup are exclusive to pay TV platforms such as Sky, there’s plenty of sport available on the various Free to Air channels to satisfy fans – including an HD channel completely dedicated to sport, 24 hours a day.
Freesport is available on Freeview channel 64 across most of the UK, providing free coverage of over 1000 hours of international sport every year. There’s extensive football coverage, including the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Copa America, the Coupe de France and Major League Soccer. Ice Hockey from five international leagues including the famed NHL is prominent on Freesport, while seasonal NASCAR motorsport and Australian V8 Supercars coverage also gets a slot.
Of course, there’s plenty of sports action on the other Freeview networks – including the BBC. But as well as live coverage and highlights shows, Freeview offers on-demand sports streaming via the unique Sports Channel Network. Accessible on Freeview channel 266, it delivers a wide range of sports including tennis, cycling, golf, street racing, pool or even competitive fishing. It’s all delivered on demand, and all of it – about 800 hours’ worth at any given time, according to the network – is completely free.
Free to Air TV Networks
While the range of channels available these days on free to air digital TV is vast, there are several large networks that provide the majority of the channels and programming.
The UK’s oldest broadcaster has a diverse range of free to air channels available, including their mainstay “numbered” channels, with BBC One as the flagship. BBC Three no longer broadcasts on Freeview, though – it moved to being an online-only channel in 2016, though it’s still accessible on many TVs and set top boxes via YouView or directly through the BBC iPlayer app, available for just about every streaming device under the sun. Alongside its main channels, the BBC also operates BBC Alba for Scottish viewers, BBC News, BBC Parliament, and the acclaimed kids’ channels CBeebies and CBBC. A major producer of original television that’s watched across the world, the BBC is also the largest broadcaster on the planet in terms of sheer number of employees across the UK.
Named for its most recognisable channel – named “All 4” because it was the fourth TV channel available at the time of its launch in the 1980s – this broadcaster operates across multiple platforms, with several channels available on Freeview. All 4 has become renowned for commissioning more adventurous programming than most – Black Mirror had its start here, for example. The network also operates a movie channel, Film 4 (and makes feature films under that same name), general entertainment channel E4, and lifestyle/documentary channel More4.
Formed in 1955, ITV operates regional channels across much of the UK, operating free to air channels from London to Wales to the Channel Islands, and operates four main digital channels in addition to the main regional ITV channel in each area. ITV2 provides general entertainment, with ITV3 primarily a drama and movie channel. ITV4 runs programming aimed at men, while ITVBe complements it with programs aimed at women. There’s also kids’ channel CITV.
Originally operating a single channel in both SD and HD, Channel Five (previously known simply as Five) is one of the newest TV operators in the UK free to air landscape, having only been on the air for just over 20 years. Now owned by US giant Viacom, Channel Five broadcasts a wide variety of shows including many American imports like CSI, Law and Order and NCIS which rate well with viewers. Channel Five is also the home of long-running Australian shows Neighbours and Home and Away, and also broadcasts sports events not covered by the other major networks. It also operates several additional free to air channels, including 5star (female-oriented programming), 5Spike and 5USA (American programming) and 5Select (documentaries and general programs).
The giant US network CBS operates several free to air channels in the UK, unsurprisingly focused heavily on shows produced by that network in the US. CBS Drama lives up to its name with a line-up of popular drama shows old and new, while CBS Justice focuses on both legal and action shows. CBS Reality specialises in all kinds of reality TV – including clip compilation shows alongside more conventional reality fare – and finally the Horror Channel delivers both horror-themed and science-fiction programming.
The huge international documentary network operates a collection of free to air channels in the UK, with DMAX offering many of the network’s most popular shows in its schedule. It’s backed by additional channels: Quest Red (lifestyle, crime and reality programs aimed at a female audience), Home (a house-and-garden channel) and Really (general programming with a female focus, and a large amount of shows previously broadcast on the BBC).
A separate network that’s entirely owned by the BBC, UKTV operates several popular channels on free to air in the UK, with the best-known undoubtedly being Dave (the name being chosen because “everyone knows a bloke named Dave”!) Attracting millions of viewers with its mix of classic and original shows and a mostly light-hearted attitude, it’s a favourite destination for many free to air viewers. Meanwhile, Drama lives up to its name by being the home of British dramas from the past few decades, spanning all genres including situation comedy at times. Finally, Yesterday has a strong emphasis on shows involving history – whether it be documentaries or classic TV shows about historical events.
All of the networks operate “catch-up” online streaming services that viewers in the UK can use at no charge, enabling easy relay of missed episodes but also useful just for regular viewing of live or on-demand content when you’re not able to be in front of the TV. The most popular ones include BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5 and UKTV Play and can be accessed via web browsers, apps for mobile phones and tablets and, of course, dedicated apps for popular streaming devices such as Apple TV.
If you have a TV or digital video recorder that’s equipped with Freeview Play, you can access all of the above plus more catch-up services – making up 95% of the UK’s free to air TV – from the one easy to use app interface, directly on your TV or recorder. The service is operated by Freeview itself, the organisation that oversees all digital free to air TV across the UK. If you’re buying a new TV or DVR, it’s worth keeping an eye out for Freeview Play as an included feature.