On Monday night here in Parliament House, a glittering array of stars joined the potentates of the commercial television industry to launch “Freeview”.

What’s Freeview?

Well, Freeview originally was a UK digital TV platform. Existing broadcasters took over some unused spectrum following the collapse of ITV Digital, and used it to broadcast new digital TV channels, radio and interactive services. The point was to encourage people to switch to digital by offering them new services. The idea was reasonably successful — the British delayed their analog switchoff process once — but it has now been underway for a year.

We don’t start until 2010 and cities won’t switch over until 2013.

We had a slightly different model to the UK digital approach, you see. The commercial TV networks, led by Kerry Packer, told John Howard and Richard Alston they wouldn’t cop the idea of new services. Costs too much and fragmented the audience, see. They also didn’t like the idea of analog switchoff, which would free up spectrum for additional television networks. Their goal was to delay switchoff as long as possible.

There were some recalcitrants within the industry on the subject. Regional broadcasters hated the idea of an extended delay before they could switch off their analog transmission equipment, because it cost them a bomb to simulcast. Bruce Gordon’s WIN Television has been a commendable proponent of viewers switching to digital. And Kerry Stokes came around to the idea of providing additional channels, because Seven had a stronger commitment to local drama than Nine or Ten, and the production deals and content to back a second channel.

Still, as News Ltd pointed out at the time, what Kerry Packer wanted, Kerry Packer got. As a figleaf for the cave-in the Howard Government insisted spectrum be chewed up with High Definition broadcasts, and peddled the nonsensical concept of datacasting, a sort of new channel without anything anyone might want to watch. Even better for the networks, in “exchange” for their cooperation in digital conversion, they were to be shielded from competition until analog switchoff.

The whole thing worked a treat because most of the population steadfastly ignored digital. The only people taking digital seriously was the subscription television sector, which fully converted to digital a couple of years ago. The problem is, we have to switch to digital at some point. If nothing else, manufacturers will stop making analog transmission equipment eventually.

So what’s Freeview? Well, it’s not like the UK Freeview. In fact it’s not clear what it is, because it’s not a new service of any kind. The best description is that it’s a marketing idea for something you can already get, a sticker to put on a digital tuner. The ABC’s Kim Dalton said “Freeview is going to mean more content, more choices, more channels, an electronic program guide, better pictures and better sound.”

Well, not quite.

The ABC’s second channel (in fact, its second go at a second channel after ABC Kids and Fly a few years back) has been available for anyone with a digital tuner quite some time. Seven’s HD channel has been around for a year for anyone with a HD tuner. SBS’s World News Channel — incomprehensible news from around the globe — has been available for even longer. Ten’s new HD sports channel (aimed at subscription TV’s strong point, sport) is also available already.

As for the critical EPG, the networks could’ve provided that years ago but were too worried about it enabling PVRs to ad-skip. And Nine and Seven haven’t officially said what will be on their new SD channels next year. So there’s not much “Freeview” now if you don’t buy a more expensive HD tuner.

The networks are saying that they will generously “donate” airtime to the cause of promoting digital over the next twelve months — $50m or so. Except, yesterday ACMA slipped out an announcement that it had approved a revision to the TV industry’s code of practice that allows “promotions for digital television that include references to ‘Freeview’ to be exempt from the time limits placed on non-program matter.” That is, ads for Freeview don’t count toward the commercial networks’ advertising limits. They’re not donating anything like $50m because the Freeview ads are on top of their existing advertising allowance.

And you get the impression from press comments that some commercial TV executives have been dragged kicking and screaming to the idea of promoting digital takeup. David Gyngell retains the view that extra channels are simply a way to lose money. Gyngell doesn’t have much time for the concept of viewers being given choice. At an ACMA broadcasting conference during his first disastrous stint as Nine CEO he lost his temper when a speaker from the UK dared to suggest Australians would benefit from greater choice in their television, throwing his notes in the air and abusing her.

Nine still has yet to undertake its own digital conversion process. It has left its run very late and is now mired in financial and property disposal problems.

Indeed, according to the Neil Shoebridge in his excellent analysis in Monday’s AFR, commercial TV execs want a trade-off in return for pushing digital TV. “Why should we spend tens of millions of dollars on new digital channels and help the government get its digital dividend with the spectre of a new network hanging over our heads?” he quoted one “senior TV executive.”

Hang on, you might think — wasn’t that the rational for the moratorium on new channels back when this all started years ago? That they’d be protected from competition while they and us switched to digital? You have to hand it to the commercial TV sector. No amount of rentseeking is ever enough. They’re Australia’s most cosseted oligopoly, protected for decades by both sides of politics in a racket that has restricted consumer choice in favour of the interests of media moguls and, now, private equity vehicles. And they’ve never stopped whingeing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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