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Freeview Play: What do you need to know?

Freeview can be found in 17 million homes across the UK, bringing access to popular TV shows and programming for free. Freeview Play is an extension of the platform into the era of the smart TV.

Freeview was launched in 2002 as a joint venture between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and communications company Arqiva. In 2015 it rebranded its subscription-free TV service to Freeview Play as the platform evolved with the uptake of smart TVs to adapt to changes in the media landscape.

Since then Freeview Play has blossomed, expanding to more devices and adding new features along the way. Somewhere in a household there’s a device capable of accessing the platform, with the service said to be the home of over 95% of the UK’s most watched shows.

With the introduction out of the way, how can you get Freeview Play and what does the service offer?

What is the difference between Freeview and Freeview Play?

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

Apps that come part of the Freeview Play package include BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, UKTV Play, Horror Bites, and CBS Catch up Channels UK, STV Player, POP Player and BBC Sounds.

Freeview, technically, requires no subscriptions 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 the original Freeview launched in 2002 (the same year as American Idol), 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 digital TV channels, as well as 15 HD channels and 25 radio stations.

All told there’s over 30,000 40,000 hours of content to sift through. Updates in the last several years 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.

It wasn’t supported by 2020 LG TVs due to Freeview and LG failing to reach an agreement but was available on their 2021 models. The South Korean electronics brand signed a five-year agreement in 2022 to offer the feature as standard going forward.

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 their 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 launched its £249 Aura Android TV recorder in 2020. 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 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 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.

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 40,000 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 Peaky Blinders, Normal People, Derry Girls, The Ipcress File, Stath Lets Flats, or you could view old classics such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The O.C and One Tree Hill.

Toshiba WK3C Freeview Play

It’s also stocked with recent and classic films. Fancy a horror? Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell is on service (as of May 2022). Or if you prefer a romantic comedy there’s Crazy Rich Asians and if you want to brush up on your film knowledge then Citizen Kane is waiting for you.

All 4 has a selection of films that includes titles such as (at the time of writing) Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Wild Rose, Slumdog Millionaire and I Am Not a Witch, so there’s a a lot of content to find if you look for it.

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.

Freeview Play Android app

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.

Features include a 15-day EPG that allows users to 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 that’s been 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 Q. 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 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 tends to cause some 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 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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