Monday, 30 May 2011

TNT/Fransat/TNTSAT versus Freeview+/Freesat+

To co-operate or not, is that the question?

The UK YouView project, (which will include in one 15 day electronic programme guide (EPG), 8 days of future programmes and 7 days of programmes available from “Video on Demand or Catch-up services delivered by ADSL) is in its later stages, ready for a launch in early 2012.  Meanwhile in France the Conseil Superieur Audiovisuel (CSA) is reflecting on the possibility of having an extended programme guide for the TNT (Television Numerique Terrestre), the French equivalent of Freeview. At present the EPG is restricted to “Now and Next” information, which many broadcasters don’t even bother to populate.

In March 2009, the last time I looked on the CSA website for anything concerning the reason for the lack of a 7 day EPG for TNT French Television channels, there was a few paragraphs from which I have translated the following. 

“We are not authorised by the law of 24 December 2001 to demand that the broadcasters publish more than "now and next" information. To create an EPG we would have to call for bids and appoint an editor for such a guide.  For that to work all the broadcasters would have to give their programme information to the editor in advance.  We don't have the authority to force them to do so and, based on previous experience, the broadcasters will refuse to give this information to a third party. Without their agreement and, because there is no law giving us the authority to force them to co-operate, the CSA is unable to call for the creation of such a service".

I was so flabbergasted that I printed it out and showed it to Christiane. This response has subsequently been taken down but I still have the printed copy.

The lack of a real EPG has profound implications for the hardware market here. Since 2007/8 users of Sky+ and Freeview+ boxes in the UK can record a programme directly from the EPG; or decide to record a series in the same way; or, if there is a recording conflict (meaning that you have programmed the box to record more than two programmes whilst you watch another), can allow the box to find an alternative emission of the same programme and record that instead.  Freesat users had this functionality as soon as the service was launched in May 2008.  Here we are still in the dark ages. You are required to set the channel, the day, the start and the finish times for each recording just like we all did with analogue video recorders!  (How often did you get it wrong?)  So there are very few boxes with integrated hard disks on sale in France and they are all very basic in functionality. They are also too expensive, and consequently nobody buys them.

We have a Humax HDR Freesat+ box with a 320 Gb disc for UK programmes and it’s a pleasure to use. The only problems are that the disk fills up too quickly and the software hangs sometimes! It did go wrong once and we sent it back to Humax in the UK for repair. We had bought it from Argos and, in order to undercut other vendors, they had negotiated a one year warranty instead of Humax’s standard two years. It was over a year old so we were expecting a big bill but Humax just sent us a new box! There is now a 1 terabyte version available.

Because there was no TNT here a couple of years ago, and only six analogue channels, I decided to stay with satellite for the French TV and I set up a new dedicated dish pointing at AB3 at 5 degW. I only bought a basic standard definition Fransat box, giving me the 18 channels of the TNT.  I decided to buy a basic box with no recording facilities, thinking that I would buy an HD box with twin tuners and a hard disk later, but I did put in a quad LNB and ran two cables back to the living room in anticipation.  (You need two cables and twin tuners to be able to watch one programme while you are recording another on a different transponder).  

I chose Fransat because just as I want nothing to do with Sky (who are getting better, since they are much more customer focussed than they used to be, and very technologically innovative, but expensive) neither do I want any sort of link with Canal+ and TNTSAT (Canal+ are focussed solely on themselves and treat their customers with disdain, preferring to dictate how they should behave than to provide good service, they are technologically backward looking and even more expensive than Sky). 

Both the Fransat and the TNTSAT bouquets are encrypted with the latest version of ViaAccess so you have to buy a box with that decoder and can't use just any satellite receiver.  The concern with pirating of these bouquets in North Africa is cited as the reason for this policy.  Perhaps it is a question of broadcasting rights, like the BBC iPlayer, which is blocked from access by would-be users outside the UK like me.
It now looks as if I should wait for the CSA to finish reflecting on an extended EPG before I spend my money! On the assumption that the CSA decide that this is a valid use of some of the broadcast bandwidth which will be liberated by the analogue switch off, and then that a law is passed to force the broadcasters to work together, perhaps it will arrive in another ten years or so. (This may sound unduly pessimistic but that’s how long it took to decide on the route of a bypass nearby at Puybrun.  The decision was finally confirmed when the biggest employer in the area threatened to relocate because the transport links were so bad!  Then it took another two years to build it). 

Finally, manufacturers will have to decide that making a Fransat box with something similar to Freeview+ functionality is worthwhile.  Of course we will probably have to wait even longer for things like “series recording”, because the law is unlikely to specify the functionality and, if the CSA is to be believed, there will be no co-operation, or forward thinking amongst the broadcasters, beyond the basics required by the law.  Without the right information in the EPG datastream, companies like Humax will be unable to transfer their full expertise to the French market.  Humax is, however, already selling a box with an integrated hard disk, for TNTSAT, which permits some of the functions in my Freesat HDR.   

By the way the organisation that was formed to set up the French TNT has been disbanded because they consider that their task is complete!

Post script
After nearly two years without French Television I finally connected up an aerial two weeks ago (February 2014) and discovered that there is now an EPG which is mostly fully populated.  I have yet to find out when it was introduced and whether any manufacturers have produced boxes which can use it to set recordings like you can on Freeview and Freesat.


  1. Got a new TV for my French house last month and was puzzled by the lack of a full EPG for the digital terrestrial channels, being so used to it on Freesat.

    Searching for info I found your now two-and-a-half -year-old blog - hardly anything has changed! Most channels still only have now and next, a few have a full 2-day EPG and it seems only the pay channels (which I don't bother with) do slightly better with 3-days worth of data.

    Vive la France... er...

    1. Welcome to one of the charming eccentricities of France. The combination of lack of initiative and co-operation with innate conservatism is crippling innovation in France. This attitude goes right through French industry and society down to local level. They expect to be told what to do and then usually apply for a subsidy to do it. Anybody who tries to change things is regarded with hostility and suspicion.
      But if you don't work here and enjoy the fact that, in rural areas at least, the traditions are maintained then France is a pleasant place to live, which is why I'm still here!