A free preview (sometimes referred to under the portmanteau "freeview") is an extended period – typically ranging anywhere from two days to one month on average – in which a pay television service is offered to customers of a cable, IPTV or satellite television provider at no cost.
The free preview concept was originated in the early 1970s by Home Box Office. By 1973, within a year of its launch, HBO had carriage on 14 cable systems in New York and Pennsylvania. The channel had an exceptionally high churn rate as subscribers would sample the service for a few weeks, eventually become tired of seeing the same films repeating over and over, and then ultimately cancel their subscription to HBO. Realizing that it was struggling because of this, HBO partnered with a cable system in Lawrence, Massachusetts to allow subscribers to view the service for free on channel 3. After one month, HBO's programming was moved to channel 6 and was scrambled. The preview proved popular among the cable provider's subscribers, helping to increase subscriptions for the channel. HBO continued with the concept as other premium cable services (such as Showtime and The Movie Channel) began offering periodic free previews themselves in order to attract new subscribers.
Free previews are generally used to increase subscribership of a premium channel, out-of-market sports package or a higher-end programming tier by allowing a service typically encrypted from viewing by customers who do not subscribe to the service to be broadcast during the period. Though they can occur on any subscription television service around the world, free previews most commonly occur with pay television providers in the North American countries of the United States and Canada. For commercial-free services, these may feature appeals to the audience between programs to order the service, usually by phone or the internet. Television providers typically offer the premium services at discount rates or with extended periods of free service (generally one or three months, before standard pricing applies thereafter) for new subscribers during these previews, often with installation fees normally incurred for subscribing to the service at any other time waived.
These preview events typically run during the weekend, as people that tend to work or attend school during the week are more likely to be at home to watch. As such, previews originally ran only on Saturdays and Sundays until the early 1990s, providers eventually started them on Fridays afterward; during the mid to late 2000s, free previews for premium channels have expanded to four-day periods (typically from Friday to Monday, although some subscription television providers have even occasionally offered previews starting on Thursdays). In effect, free previews for premium channels are usually scheduled in tandem with the premiere of a new or returning high-profile made-for-cable television series, a special (such as a concert), or a major feature film. These preview periods can run anywhere between one to five times each year. Although free previews have historically been carried nationally to all pay television service providers (particularly for premium channels), it has become common since the 2000s for preview events to only be made available to an individual provider or a limited number of providers.
Free preview events for premium channels generally offer the services without expurging content deemed inappropriate for basic cable or broadcast television, meaning that some programs shown may include graphic violence, nudity, overt sexual content or strong profanity, potentially allowing children to observe such content if parental controls are not activated. This was a particular issue before the advent of digital cable as these preview events usually ran on local origination channels available on basic cable tiers.
Until the early 2000s, television providers and premium services ran hosted interstitials between programs, which featured promos, prize giveaways and behind-the-scenes information. Actors, comedians and other entertainers often were used to host free preview events for premium cable services during the 1980s. Many cable systems offered additional incentives to entice people into subscribe to a premium service such as offering prizes and free vacation drawings that offered trips to the location that the free preview was taking place (for example, Cox Communications broadcast interstitials during free previews of HBO, Showtime and Cinemax that included nightly prize giveaways to Walt Disney World – where free previews originated until 1999 – and then to the MGM Grand Las Vegas).
In recent years, the free preview concept has changed as premium cable services have moved to digital programming tiers and subscribers have upgraded to these packages. With digital cable having become commonplace since the early 2000s, most cable and satellite providers have since eschewed using local origination channels to carry these preview events and ceased producing interstitials for such events by premium channels, and now simply unencrypt the service's signal on the service's designated channel slot it is regularly carried on during the period. Some video-on-demand services, pay-per-view sports packages and select basic channels available on higher subscription tiers also occasionally offer free previews, sometimes for as long as one to two weeks.
- HOGAN, MONICA. "A New Kind of Marketing", Multichannel News, September 18, 2000. Retrieved March 2, 2011 from HighBeam Research.
- Ops' dilemma: to sample or not to sample?, Multichannel News, December 2, 1996. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from HighBeam Research.
- October 3, 1981 HBO Free Preview promos