A Busman’s Holiday (or, different strokes for different folks)

HB Munchen It was with much excitement that Team Freesat packed its collective bags and headed to Munich last month. Munich is one of the world’s great cities (and the fourth most desirable to live in, according to some surveys), boasting beautiful scenery, great food, the world’s largest beer festival and, now, the world’s best football team.

Sadly, Freesat was not off on its summer holidays, but we did get the chance to spend a great afternoon with HD Plus, Germany’s free-to-air satellite TV service provider and the closest to being a German cousin of Freesat. We left after our day with our impressive HD Plus hosts with a much clearer idea of what makes our two markets similar and, more pertinently, what makes them different (beyond what we learnt from Tuesday’s amusing BBC TWO documentary Make Me A German).

The HD Plus proposition is – you’ll be amazed to hear – based largely on HD programming; viewers pay a small annual fee for the HD versions of the country’s key commercial channels (the HD PSB channels are free). This may seem contradictory for a “free” service but for a long time, entry-level TV in Germany consisted of basic cable TV, paid for as part of your monthly rent or apartment service charge.

HD Plus has been a success – it reaches 2.6m homes and an impressive 1.2m pay for the extra HD channels. But another key TV market technology that has defined the UK TV market in the last decade – the PVR – is much less popular – a minority of HD Plus customers use one, and ad-skipping is disabled from the HD Plus PVR; this compares to 2/3s of UK homes.

HD Plus maintain that disabling this capability is there to protect the business models of the German broadcasters – and it’s interesting to see the business taking the polar opposite tack to Dish in the US on this matter

Some of the factors in the success of HD Plus are familiar: German viewers really value the lack of a contract, a motivation that services like Netflix, Zipcar and EasyGym have also taken advantage of. But there’s also a very German, and perhaps unlikely, factor behind the success of HD Plus – anonymity. HD Plus goes to great lengths to ensure viewers that their data will never be collected. Privacy is a very, very big deal in Germany, something wittily explained by Jeff Jarvis here; it’s also of note that the German reaction to the PRISM scandal has been proactive, to say the least.

Whilst there’s a lot of talk about the impact of global companies on national media markets, it seems pretty clear to us that audiences in different countries still expect a lot to be made just for them, and that one size definitely does not fit all. Freesat has always looked beyond its UK borders when deciding on what services to launch and technical standards to use, but one of the most popular features of <free time>, Freesat’s shiny TV Guide, is the Backwards TV Guide, an almost uniquely British phenomenon that, to our knowledge, is not launched or widely used in most other media markets.

John Cleese - Fawlty Towers Graffito - Alfama District - Lisbon, PortugalOf course we know that some of our most-loved British TV shows – Fawlty Towers, Blackadder et al – are quintessentially British, in the same way that Germany has its own zeitgeist TV, including the annual Christmas TV ritual of Der 90. Geburtstag, (which we have to point out is in fact a dubbed British comedy…). So above and beyond what we already knew, what our brief Busman’s Holiday to Munich did confirm was that national identity most definitely extends to TV services, too.

Giles Cottle is Head of Strategy at Freesat

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