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What is Freely? The new BBC, ITV, C4 and C5 on demand service explained

The newest British streaming service is officially here. Freely launched on Hisense TVs in April, and will be available across selected brands’ new TV sets in the coming months.

The service aims to streamline on-demand TV and live public service channels into one, easy-to-navigate service, without an aerial. It’s essentially the online streaming version of Freeview. It comes from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and will stream each broadcaster’s programming live – with more channels set to follow. If you’ve not had access to live TV in a spare room up to now because you lacked an aerial connection, this might be solution.

It’s still early days and the initial offering will expand with extra features later down the line. But for now, here’s everything we know about Freely.

What is Freely?

Freely is a streamlined, online-only way to watch live and catch-up content from British public service channels through your TV. Freeview does this at present via an aerial, while Freesat does it over a satellite signal. Freeview Play adds on-demand programmes. Freely will do the same, only via your internet connection.

The service essentially pools together BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5’s live channels, plus their streaming services, into one handy electronic programme guide (EPG). Currently, if you’re watching Bake Off live through All 4 but want to switch over to BBC iPlayer, you’ll need to navigate from one app to another. Freely will streamline that annoying process by providing access to a single, consistent experience for both live free-to-air TV and catch-up content.

Viewers will be able to seamlessly browse channels through a revamped programme guide, and can search and explore new shows directly from live TV.

How can I get Freely?

Freely will come built into new TVs sold in the UK, similar to how current models ship with Freeview. Dispense and Vestel (the manufacturer behind TV brands including Toshiba, Bush, and JVC) were first to confirm they were on board; the former’s entire 2024 line-up of 4K sets, updated for the new model generation in May 2024, now include Freely. It will also be the native guide on Vestel TVs for at least the next five years.

Sharp, Panasonic and Metz joined the Freely train in June 2024, with each brand’s respective 2024 models set to get the streaming service; they are set to start rolling out over the next few months.

Other TV brands will likely follow later. If you can buy a TV today with Freeview Play built-in, the expectation is that brand will have a Freely offering in the next few years – though Freeview Play isn’t being retired.

What can I watch through Freely?

Freely is being developed by Everyone TV, which runs free TV in the UK and is jointly owned by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. At launch you’ll be able to watch those broadcasters’ live channels, as well as all their on-demand content. Other channels are expected to follow suit later, including UKTV and Sky News.

If you plug your TV into an aerial, other free-to-air channels that you’d otherwise access through Freeview will also appear in the Freely TV guide. You just won’t be able to pause live TV while watching them, or access any sort of catch-up offerings directly through the EPG.

What features does Freely have?

At launch, Freely has three main elements: a Browse screen, which suggests live and on-demand programmes from Britain’s leading broadcasters; A TV Guide, with seven-day forward functionality; and a Mini Guide interface that pops up each time you switch live channels. There’s also a Search function, for finding specific shows.

The Browse menu includes shortcuts to the five main terrestrial channels, as well as each broadcaster’s native on-demand app. These are the same versions you’ll have on your existing TV or streaming device. Scroll down and you’ll see top picks from each broadcaster. Choose one and you’ll be taken straight to the content. It was quick to load and navigate through on the Hisense TV we tried; according to the firm the UI was developed to run well on entry-level TVs as well as top-end ones.

The TV guide is a comprehensive planner for the next seven days, with episode descriptions and images representing each show. There’s currently no backwards planner for past broadcasts, so if you’ve missed something live you’ll need to find it using the dedicated Search function. It’s possible previous days will be visible after an update later down the line; Freely reps also said setting reminders for upcoming programmes is a feature they’d like added eventually too.

When watching free-to-air channels, the Mini Guide shows the currently playing show and how long it has left to run, plus what’s coming up next (and at what time). There are shortcuts for activating subtitles and audio description where supported. You’re able to pause live TV for up to 15 minutes, and restart the current programme via catch-up (where the service supports it, anyway). Pressing the Info & episodes button then displays previous episodes – with an option jump straight into them through the relevant catch-up service.

Search is currently onscreen text input only, with voice support on the wish list. It suggests potential matches before you’re finished typing, based on what’s proving popular across all the available channels. Typing B-L instantly suggested BBC crime drama Blue Lights and children’s TV show Bluey, for example.

All the demos we’ve seen so far have been on Hisense TVs. Freely is the default TV guide here, opening when you press the dedicated Freely button as well as the Guide button. It appears as its own app on Hisense’s VIDAA smart TV interface, alongside BBC iPlayer and the like. The integration goes further, though, with its own carousel entry showing live TV channels, and content appearing in the TV’s top-level search results. How other manufacturers integrate Freely into their TVs remains to be seen.

The Freely UI is minimal, clearly labelled and very easy to navigate. There are still a few features we’d like to see added, but at launch it already looks like a much more coherent way to get between live and catch-up content across multiple broadcasters. If you’re one of the four million (and counting) UK households that don’t watch TV through an aerial or satellite, it’s definitely worth looking out for Freely support when buying your next TV.

Will it replace iPlayer or ITVX, for example?

Freely isn’t a replacement for existing streaming services – it’s simply a way of getting to your content from a single location, whether it’s live or on demand. Using the Freely TV guide to watch a programme on catch-up will open the relevant service – for example BBC iPlayer, ITVX, All 4 or My5. All four will continue to work as normal, and be available through your TV’s smart home interface.

When will it launch?

Freely is available right now on Hisense and Bush TVs. The first sets officially went on sale at the start of May 2024. Other Vestel-built TVs are set to follow soon, with Panasonic, Sharp and Metz sets due before the end of the year. Other manufacturers are expected to follow later, though no further brands are confirmed at the time of writing.

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