ITV, BBC to launch digital sat service

Freesat will bow early next year

LONDON — ITV, Blighty’s biggest private terrestrial broadcaster, on Wednesday announced that it will bow a digital satellite service in partnership with its rival, the BBC, that could pose a threat to the Rupert Murdoch-backed British Sky Broadcasting.

Freesat — not to be confused with the little-publicized BSkyB service “Freesat From Sky” that launched last fall — will bow early next year.

It is aimed at the quarter of U.K. homes that are unable, for technical reasons, to receive digital terrestrial venture Freeview, backed by the BBC and BSkyB.

The new service, much talked about for 18 months, will carry all BBC and ITV digital channels, plus other, as-yet-undisclosed webs, but not premium channels.

ITV CEO Charles Allen says the service is aimed at digital refuseniks.

“As we move from analog to digital, Freesat — and Freeview — will enable every family in the U.K. to enjoy a wide range of quality channels for free,” he told a press conference, in which he also unveiled ITV’s pre-tax profits, up 60% to £205 million ($369 million) in the first half of 2005 on earnings up 9% to $1.8 billion.

He also said that ITV would no longer pay BSkyB to transmit its channels encrypted, opting, as the BBC did last year, to transmit “in the clear.”

ITV and BSkyB have been at loggerheads for months over how much the broadcaster should pay for encryption — a deal reportedly worth $120 million a year to the satellite platform.

The issue is being probed by U.K. communications regulator Ofcom.

Allen said ITV was tweaking its digital channels as it preps for November’s launch of male-skewed ITV4.

ITV2, geared to the under-35s, is to become more femme-friendly while the long-term future of the Men & Motors channel is in doubt.

Lastly, Allen is making some of ITV1’s most successful shows available on subscription to mobile phone users.

Alongside news, sports and weather, ITV plans to offer highlights and specials based on shows like long-running soap “Coronation Street” and reality skein “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.”

Allen also confirmed ITV has thrown its hat into the ring to bid for Flextech, the content arm of cable combo Telewest that owns channels such as Living, Bravo and UK TV.

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