Raymond Snoddy on media: How Freesat banished sceptic in me

There is not much chance of stopping this article resembling an advertorial. But then, when you really like a product, why not participate in the holy grail of marketing - word-of-mouth recommendation.

After all, as we have already discovered, it is not just Sir Michael Parkinson who thinks Sky+ is terrific. Almost everyone who has one thinks personal video recorders are the one gizmo among all the electronic tat that is pretty close to essential.

In fact, meeting someone from the media world these days who admits they haven't got one - or, shock horror, in extreme cases, have not even heard of the beast - is the modern equivalent of the gent who in ancient times lit up his cigar before the Loyal Toast. Social death.

The bit of kit I am championing is not in the same revolutionary class as Sky+, but it is easy to take a shine to Freesat.

At the outset, when the BBC and ITV launched the project, it appeared a tad superfluous - had they nothing better to do with their money than launch a rival to Sky's free satellite service? Surely this was just another example of Murdoch envy.

When the satellite installer turned up to perform his very first Freesat installation along the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, opposite the Mull of Kintyre, where the writ of Freeview does not run, the scepticism went straight out of the window.

Until then, visits to home territory were like a return to medieval times. Just four television channels. Can you believe that? The fingers may have played nervously with the remote, but it made not a blind bit of difference and radio reception was so poor you couldn't even get the Today programme.

Suddenly, for £100, for the dish installation and an HD box that doesn't cost much more, you have access to 72 channels of television plus essential radio.

The key differentiators of this product are the BBC and ITV HD channels with, presumably, Channel 4 HD to follow.

We may be talking here about an old-fashioned analogue tube TV rather than the latest swish HD model, but in an area of middling quality reception at best, the transformation was total.

There is clearly going to be a tidy market here for those who don't want to, or can't, afford subscription television.

Then there is the 20% of the country that cannot receive Freeview at the moment.

The second-home market also covers more than 600,000 households in England alone and it is quite difficult to justify the Sky football subscription when you can't be there all the time.

It could add up to a tidy total over time and help the transition to analogue switch-off, which may not hit the Antrim coast until as late as 2013.

However, as the BBC used to say when it was still promoting its magazines on-air, there are other titles in the market.

The free Sky satellite service does much of the same things as Freesat - without HD and with lots of inducements to trade up to subscription. However, the broadcaster hasn't exactly been heavily promoting it, for obvious reasons.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that it was Freesat that caught my attention and led to action - and it is a relationship that is going to last.

There are also signs that the manufacturers are getting behind it with at least five Freesat HD systems on the market already.

The double-page colour spread in the Mail on Sunday advertising the latest Panasonic TV with Freesat HD already built in is another sign of a fresh brand being born.

Moreover, this time in County Antrim, it really will be possible to see the ball at Wimbledon on the new digital gear.

- Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC Television's Newswatch

30 SECONDS ON ... FREESAT

- Freesat began broadcasting on 6 May and offers a satellite alternative to Freeview.

- With the capability to reach 98% of UK households, Freesat has more than 80 free digital channels, including high-definition BBC and ITV programmes. It also provides super-fast digital text and enhanced interactivity.

- Freesat intends to grow its channel line-up each month, with plans for up to 200 channels to be on air by the end of the year.

- Freesat requires three different types of receiver: a standard definition box, an HD box and an HD integrated digital TV with Freesat built-in (IDTV).

- Box prices start from £49, with an HD box available from £120, plus installation costs from about £80.

- This summer, Alba and Humax digital TV recorders will be available, enabling viewers to record, pause, rewind and fast-forward shows.

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