Jason Foden has been confirmed as the new chief executive of Freeview, officially taking the position vacated by former boss Sam Irving earlier this year.
Formerly the general manager of TVNZ OnDemand, Foden has been with Freeview since April, working alongside Irving before taking on the role of acting CEO.
In that time Foden has become familiarised with many of the challenges facing the business and has already made it a priority to rectify those issues.
He says that Freeview in New Zealand provides an interesting opportunity to gauge whether an aggregated service has the potential to compete with the global players.
“I think combined all the broadcasters have really compelling content across ethnicities and genres. And if you put it all in one place, it’s a really compelling story,” he says.
Getting to the stage of delivering on this potential does, however, demand a few strategic shifts at Freeview.
Foden says the first major challenge on his agenda is improving the usability of the interface to focus more clearly on what customers want.
“It’s fair to say that the experience has been clunky until now,” he says.
Until now, shows have been catalogued under the different free-to-air brands within Freeview, which means that users can only access shows by first entering the correct portal.
According to Foden, this does little more than complicate the user’s path to accessing the shows they want to watch.
“TVNZ and Three are strong brands in their own right, but people come to Freeview because they’re fans of Shortland Street and Married at First Sight rather than the company that airs them,” he says.
For this reason, Freeview will be updating its interface to a single catalogue that houses content from all providers, creating an experience more akin to that of MySky.
“This is really an example of the broadcasters working together, rather than saying ‘My brand is better than your brand’. It’s been a big concession that they’ve made [to move away from having shows categorised under their brands].”
Users will also be able to access live TV and recorded shows through the app without having to switch in an out of the digital experience.
“We’re looking to remove all those things that interrupt the viewing and discovery experience. It’s about going from discovery to watch really quickly.”
All content will be categorised under entertainment genres, such as comedy, drama and horror.
What’s more is that Freeview will also include SVOD providers in the mix, giving users direct access to Lightbox and Netflix through the interface.
Foden says there’s no point in pretending that users aren’t watching SVOD content because it is happening and it’ll only become an increasingly important part of the industry in the future.
Freeview has been working closely with the customer-experience designers at digital agency DNA to bring the new service to life.
While there were a number of major functional changes, Foden also took this as an opportunity to make some subtler aesthetic changes. Principle among these was the move away from the red and white theme that was previously painted across the platform.
“White on red just isn’t easy to read,” says Foden. “We really don’t have to be so obvious with our branding.”
He argues that the point of the new platform is really to let the content shine. Everything else is secondary.
Foden’s announcement of the changes come shortly after the recent launch of the Vodafone TV service, which similarly brings together a number of online services under a single banner.
Despite the similarities, Foden doesn’t believe the Vodafone offering threatens the relevance of Freeview in the local market.
“Vodafone is offering a great service, but it’s a bit narrower,” he says. “We’re not linked to any ISP and you don’t need to have fibre to use our service.”
The point Foden makes here is that Freeview is available to anyone in New Zealand, regardless of their broadband provider or the quality of internet they’re signed up for.
Users simply need a Smart TV or a set top box to connect to the Freeview interface, and they can do so with any internet connection.
“The experience will, of course, be better with fibre, but it’s not a prerequisite,” Foden says.
On the topic of the set top box, Freeview has also invested in a redesign of the product to give it a sleeker, more modern look.
The device will have one terabyte recording capability, dual-tuner capability (compatible with both satellite and standard aerial) as well as third-party OTT (including the likes of Netflix and Lightbox) compatibility.
“For people who are wedded to live TV, but are thinking a bit more about on-demand, this is the box for them,” Foden says. “You can watch live, record it and then you can try out the Netflix service.”
The revamped set top box will be released early next year, but Foden says the final price hasn’t yet been decided.
Stats released in June this year showed that 70 percent of New Zealanders were registered as Freeview users, providing a substantial market of users who might be interested in an upgrade.
A 2016 NZ On Air study from last year also showed decent levels of engagement, with users spending an average of 59 minutes on Freeview every day (this was up from 56 minutes in 2014).
This provides a relatively strong base for Foden to build on, but he’ll be hoping that his tinkering with the strategy and the interface serves to augment those numbers and give the service even greater scale.