The free-to-air Freeview campaign relaunched itself last Sunday evening with another roadblock ad across all five networks.

Roadblock ads perfectly demonstrate the traditional mentality of the commercial free-to-air networks, who have been restricting Australians’ media choice for generations. What better way to spruik Freeview than a method that prevents viewers from watching anything different?

At least Freeview now actually has some meaning. Last year it was name and a campaign but it was never clear what it was about. Now, at last, we’re beginning to see what the actual product is: an EPG, which isn’t ready yet, and a HD set-top box that won’t let you skip ads (there’s that anti-consumer thing again).

Whether a Freeview-badged box will even be available at all retailers is in doubt. Harvey Norman director David Ackery this week called Freeview “irrelevant” and said it lacked value. Freeview CEO Robin Parkes apologised to Harvey Norman for holding a launch in a Dick Smith store.

Freeview also needed a new ad because the last one was more than a little misleading, suggesting you could get 15 separate channels. Many of them, however, are simulcasts — the ABC, SBS and Ten are the only broadcasters providing additional channels, and Ten doesn’t broadcast outside capital cities. In fact in a lot of regional areas you’re still lucky to get five channels.

Oh and that Freeview ad won’t count toward the commercial broadcasters’ advertising limit — ACMA bizarrely decided that it could be treated the same way as public information and charity ads.

But regardless of the merits or otherwise of Freeview, why is the ABC running these ads? They will continue to be shown on a regular basis, usually in prime time.

There’s no suggesting of the ABC is breaching its Act. Under the ABC Act, the ABC can advertise any announcement relating to any activity or proposed activity of the Corporation, which covers Freeview because the ABC is one of the participants, or it can run an advertisement if, in effect, the ABC decides it isn’t an advertisement. The ABC’s director of television Kim Dalton is also head of Freeview and, as one would expect of someone in that position, has been a vocal and strong advocate for it.

But let’s be clear what Freeview is and why the ABC’s provision of support for it must be questioned.

Freeview is little more than a gimmick designed to further the interests of commercial television. For a decade, the commercial networks and in particular the Nine Network through the poisonous influence of the Packers strangled the development of digital television and its capacity to provide both additional content to consumers and the potential it created for more competition. But under their noses, subscription television stole a march on them, despite being hobbled by pro-free-to-air regulations by successive federal governments. Subscription television, with an automatic interest in additional consumer choice, slowly accumulated an audience and made its own conversion to digital that remains the biggest component of Australia’s digital television take-up.

Only the Seven Network wanted to use the possibilities of digital broadcasting to provide additional content, but was not permitted. Only WIN, in regional areas, used its own resources to encourage viewers to switch to digital.

As a consequence, Australia’s digital conversion has been so slow we have delayed analog switchoff not once but twice.

Freeview is the product of two things: the worry of the commercial free-to-air networks that subscription television is seriously eroding their audiences through a better quality offering, and the Federal Government’s growing impatience with the slow pace of digital conversion. Even the Howard Government tired of Nine’s intransigence and opened the way for multichannelling in its 2006 reforms.

The fact that a critical element of the Freeview set-top box specification is that ad-skipping be disabled reflects just how much Freeview is all about protecting the commercial free-to-air networks, with their ancient model of the passive consumer letting broadcasters and advertise decide what they’ll see.

But in Kim Dalton’s view, the ABC’s involvement in Freeview is important. He strongly argues that the ABC must work with the other free-to-air broadcasters to manage the transition to digital. “The ABC has a strong interest in ensuring that free-to-air television remains the pre-eminent platform, and that we achieve the same degree of engagement with audiences in digital as we do currently,” he told Crikey. “There are now a range of platforms, given the growth of subscription television, and IPTV is likely to emerge in the next few years, and free-to-air broadcasters must get audiences to understand what it can provide in that changed environment. It is also very much aligned with Government policy to drive digital take-up.”

Dalton also rejected criticism of the ban on ad-skipping. “That issue is overblown and gets come commentators and bloggers over-excited. If Australians want strong, diverse, high-quality television services, they shouldn’t expect the providers to promote a technology that undermines that business model. It only applies to DVRs and most consumers don’t care about the issue.”

The ABC and SBS have run their own race on digital. They have smartly rolled out digital services across the national networks. They pushed for the opportunity to multichannel from the beginning. They were alive to the possibilities of digital and continually sought to exploit them. In short, they have put the commercial networks to shame. The only direct value for the ABC and SBS in the Freeview exercise is to ensure they are on the EPG whenever it is made available. But as each month goes by and consumers switch to digital either with a set-top box or via subscription television, that becomes less and less of a problem. There’s a strong case for thinking they should let the commercial networks reap the consequences of their recalcitrance.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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