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Freeview Play: The streaming platform explained

Freeview has over 11 million active users and is described as the fastest-growing smart platform in the UK, bringing access to popular TV shows and programming for free.

It launched in 2002 as a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and communications company Arqiva with just 25 channels available and has grown from strength to strength since.

It was built-in to TVs in 2004, began broadcasting in HD in 2009 and in 2015 Freeview rebranded its subscription-free TV service as Freeview Play as the platform evolved with the introduction of smart TVs.

Since then Freeview Play has expanded to more devices and adding new features and channels. It’s the most popular smart platform in the UK, with a reach of 18 million homes it’s said to be the home to 95% of the UK’s most watched shows.

So how can you get Freeview Play and what does it offer?

What is the difference between Freeview and Freeview Play?

Freeview Play is an extension of the platform into the era of the smart TV, so Freeview Play is Freeview but connected.

The platform integrates streaming channels into a hub with access to live, catch-up and on-demand TV all rolled into one service over an internet connection.

Apps that come part of the Freeview Play package include BBC iPlayer, the new ITVX, All 4, My5, UKTV Play, Horror Bites, and CBS Catch up Channels UK, STV Player, POP Player, BBC Sounds. In 2022, it added the PBS America player to its roster of channels.

Technically, Freeview, requires no subscription as it is a free-to-access broadcast service, though anyone who watches broadcast TV on any screen in the house must pay the annual TV licence fee.

Back when it launched in 2002, it enabled the switch from a few analogue channels to tens of digital channels for anyone who had a Freeview box. Now Freeview Play is home to over 80 live TV channels, as well as 15 HD channels and 25 radio stations.

As of April 2022 there 40,000 hours of content to sift through. Fast forward to December 2022 and there are now 60,000 hours of content available o the platform.

Updates have brought it in line with the latest video standards in 4K and HLG HDR, while accessibility options have been improved for the hard of hearing and those with poor sight.

How do I get Freeview Play?

Freeview Play is built directly into a range of devices sold in the UK.

It’s available on Amazon Fire TV Edition, Hisense, Panasonic, Philips, TCL and Toshiba TVs, as well as models from Cello, Hitachi, Luxor and JVC. Do note that the linear TV (or broadcast TV) aspect of Freeview Play requires a signal from an aerial to operate.

LG’s 2020 range of TVs did not carry the platform due to Freeview and LG failing to reach an agreement but a five-year deal was agreed from 2022 onwards.

LG and Freeview Play agreement

Where you won’t find Freeview is on Sony TVs, which backs YouView, while Samsung has its free-to-watch TV Plus service, though all of the main UK catch-up apps are available on those TVs.

You can easily see whether a TV has support by looking for a mention of ‘Freeview Play’ in the TV’s features list. We mention in our reviews whether a TV supports the platform or not in the specs or the copy itself.

If a TV doesn’t support Freeview Play, one option is to get a set-top box. If you want to record content there are recordable set-top boxes from the likes of Manhattan and Humax, the latter has a £249 Aura Android TV recorder. If that’s too expensive, there are boxes available for less than £100.

What do I get with Freeview Play?

Freeview Play integrates on-demand content into the linear TV guide, making the entire breadth of content available in one place. For example, rather than having to access BBC’s iPlayer as a separate app, you can dip into the service by selecting a missed programme from the past seven days in the EPG (Electronic Programme Guide).

TVs and set-top boxes have access to Channel 100. That offers a quick way into the various apps from a carousel across the top of the UI. Below is a curated selection of recommended shows filtered by 10 categories or genres, including one ‘wildcard’ category that is seasonal or related to a particular event such as Hallowe’en, Christmas or Eurovision.

As the on-demand/catch-up side of the service relies on an internet connection, there’s the ability to add new programmes and features on a regular basis. Introduced since launch are search and recommendation functions to keep the Freeview Play platform competitive with paid-for services from the likes of Sky and Virgin.

Another major update is Freeview’s Accessible TV Guide. It intends to make it simpler for those who are hard of hearing or have poor eyesight to find content. More recently, the platform has added new discovery features such as genre recommendations that joined the service in 2022.

Freeview Play Accessible TV Guide

Head to Channel 555 and viewers will be asked for their preferred accessibility settings, whether that’s the Text to Speech feature for navigation; only showing programmes with audio description, showing programmes with subtitles, or showing programmes with sign language.

The UI has been developed with a high-contrast look (white text, black background), the screen magnified to make it more easily readable, and a text-to-speech functionality incorporated in the UI. With the last feature viewers can determine how quickly the speech is delivered too.

What can I watch on Freeview Play?

With over 60,000 hours of content, there’s no shortage of films and TV shows to watch.

With BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, UKTV Play, Horror Bites, and CBS Catch up Channels UK, there’s programming such as Made in Chelsea, Normal People, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Derry Girls, Love Island, Fresh Meat and What We Do in the Shadows.

Or you could view old classics such as The Thin Blue Line, The Simpsons and Veronica Mars, and if you want to watch the latest series of Rick and Morty or Harley Quinn, they’re available on demand through the service too.

LG OLED42C2 His Dark Materials series one

It’s also stocked with recent and classic films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Spider-Man: Far From Home are available, as well as Death Proof, A Ghost Story, Last Christmas and classic films such as Doctor Zhivago, A Matter of Life and Death and Apocalypse Now.

The launch of PBS America on the platform, there’s access to the wealth of informative series that span U.S history, for example Ken Burns’ FRONTLINE & American Experience documentaries, with Freeview Play viewers able to enjoy on demand box sets such as The Civil War and even Country Music.

Panasonic TX-40JX850 Freeview Play

What about the Freeview app?

Freeview launched an app in 2019 on Android and iOS, bringing its on-demand and catch-up TV content to mobile devices.

The app is separated into five sections – What’s On, On Demand, Guide, Search and My Freeview – and it works similarly to the ‘big screen’ app. You can download it for free, select the region and then download the various catch-up apps to access to content.

Freeview Play On Demand iPad Pro

With the 15-day EPG users can go backwards 7-days to catch up on what’s been missed. Reminders can be set, and channels marked as favourites to act as a filter in the TV guide, allowing viewers to watch available content whenever and wherever they want.

Can you upgrade from Freeview to Freeview Play?

Sadly, you can’t upgrade a non-Freeview Play device to run the Freeview Play platform. It requires completely new gear designed to run the service.

Of course, purchasing a set-top box works as a cost-effective way of getting Freeview Play – provided you have the space under your TV for another black box.

What about Netflix and other streaming apps?

Unsurprisingly, Freeview Play does not integrate streaming services such as Netflix into its electronic programme guide (EPG) or rival offerings like Virgin Media’s set-top boxes or Sky Stream. Rather, it’s up to the individual TV and set-top-box manufacturers to strike such deals separately.

In other words, you’ll need to continue accessing Netflix and any other OTT subscription service through their standalone apps. The EPG is only intended for the catch-up services provided by the free-to-view channels that operate on Freeview.

Is Freeview Play worth it?

When a TV brand that has supported Freeview Play loses the feature, it often causes consternation with viewers. That says plenty about how much people rely on Freeview Play and how they expect it to be a feature that’s always there.

The amount of content available is massive, with fresh content along with classics from yester-year available to browse. While you can quibble with it being technically ‘free’, there’s always something to watch and in recent years updates have helped modernise the service as well as make it more accessible. Freeview Play adds value and once it’s been sampled, few prefer to be without it.

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