Alex Encel is Australia’s best known digital TV campaigner and this is his story.
I started out as a politically naive old man in the digital/HDTV debate. It did not take long to become acquainted with the way the system works.
In 1997 when I started seeing ordinary TVs described enthusiastically on current affairs programs as HDTVs, I wrote plaintive letters and made phone calls to point out the facts.
To my surprise at the time, no-one was in the least interested except one TV station who told me sternly in a letter how unreasonable it was of me to expect newsreaders to understand technology.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
For the next 2 years the media was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about HDTV/Digital TV. I was treated like a fool and became so incensed at the impossible nonsense fed to consumers that we formed a “HDTV war room” at work and wore camouflage jackets.
I wrote endless letters, gave submissions to the Productivity Commission and Senate Inquiry, and tried to educate people in the media but encountered almost complete indifference. I was not the only one who realised the policy could not succeed in its aims. Perhaps for reasons of job security, indifference, or a resigned sense of futility, most others fell silent. I became by default (along with my willingness to speak out) a more visible Cassandra on the subject.
Why was it so simple to see that a mandated HDTV policy alone could not work? The original aim was that we would close down our analogue system by 2008 with everyone eagerly migrating to HDTV. It couldn’t possibly work.
The figures were simple. There are over 10 million TVs in Australia and they are replaced at the rate of 1 million a year, mainly when they die, become unwatchable, or economically unrepairable. These figures don’t change much year to year.
In the UK, analogue switch-off time was to happen when 95% were on Digital TV. So if Australia was to follow suit, they would need every TV owner to replace all their present sets with HDTVs by the fanciful date of 2008.
Since the price in the US at the time for the high standard of HDTV the government was talking about was around A$20,000 and most Australian TVs are worth around $500 with an average today of $7-800 this was a technological fantasy. Lower standard (but still okay) HDTV is currently still over $5000.
One of the researchers on Four Corners checked my figures and said to me in a puzzled way that they checked out. It was hard for anyone to believe the government could be that far away from reality.
After the highly critical and revealing Four Corners program went to air, the tide of opinion started turning and I started to get much more of a hearing. Other critical comments started to appear in the media and although Senator Alston had previously said the policy was “set in stone”, it subsequently changed to the current triplecast system. This too is a failure in terms of the supposed aims.
So how could all this happen with the lengthy expensive consultants’ reports and surveys all well laid out and sounding very authoritative?
The problem is not technical. The technology is fine.
The problem is the policy.
So why could such a crazy policy get adopted? It’s actually very simple. The commercial broadcasters (understandably and reasonably in terms of their interests) wanted to minimise competition and HDTV takes up so much broadcast spectrum that there wouldn’t be room for all the additional competitors. The government went along with this whether out of political friendship or being convinced by the pseudo surveys and techno-babble.
Checking facts wasn’t part of the process. For example one of the justifications for giving the spectrum away was the supposed cost of implementation for the TV channels. I argued the figures were exaggerated by a factor of several times. It was even admitted by the Government representative in the Senate inquiry that the figures hadn’t been checked. But still nothing changed.
What could we have done originally that might have worked?
My number one choice was to wait for a couple of years and learn from the mistakes of other countries instead of them learning from ours. Failing that, sell the spectrum (estimated worth at the time 6-12 billion dollars) with appropriate policy safeguards and even supply free simple set top boxes to consumers from the proceeds of the sale. These would be very cheap if millions were being purchased (say 1 billion dollars to supply every Australian household). The end result? Viewers would have had a lot more content choice with many billions left over for the public coffers. This would have been a practical solution but was politically impossible under the circumstances.
What can we do now?
I’m not going to talk about potential radical changes that could theoretically happen but won’t happen due to political realities. Any changes (of any kind) will make some industry players unhappy.
Senator Alston and advocates of our current policy have developed selective amnesia about their earlier “Australians will flock to HDTV” statements and now say “We always thought it would be a slow uptake”.
Over a long period of many years (some say decades), and despite being held back by the policy, digital will eventually become the system. How quickly this happens depends on what consumers perceive as delivering them value. Logically the multichanneling capacity of digital has a broader appeal than HDTV. The general public want more good content.
Crazy Quiz time: Why is every digital TV owner a multi millionaire?
The figures are a bit rubbery but if we had sold the spectrum for say $8 billion and there are say 3,000 actual HDTVs (no-one reveals the figures as they would be too embarrassing) connected to the digital system, each owner of these televisions has had millions of dollars devoted to him or her at this stage.
I have only scratched the surface of a very complex subject. (Joel Brinkley wrote a book of several hundred pages on HDTV in the USA).
You can find more information, a lot now historical, on my website Digital TV Facts here
If you have a query or opinion feel free to give me a call on 03 9429 0822, not an email.
Digital TV has nearly gone off the radar screen these days.
The times when I was lauded as “the man who saved your TV” in part of the metropolitan press are over. Less pleasant were the hundreds of times on the internet and other places (some opponents claim it was said a lot more often behind my back) I have been branded as a corrupt person with vested interests, a luddite, a wanker or just as a no-account person to whom no-one paid attention except on some obscure internet forums.
It has certainly been an interesting battle over the years.
Nonetheless I do wonder what our TV situation would be now if we had sold the spectrum and had the program diversity plus the billions in the public purse.