Hard News by Russell Brown

89

Speaking Freely

In the current NBR, my old friend Tom Frewen is predicting doom for TVNZ and the Freeview digital platform under a National government. But before you worry too much, it's helpful to be aware that Tom has written this column quite a few times already.

In July 2006 there was Media aren't asking digital TV questions, where Tom held that the consumer purchase of decoders and TVs was an uncounted cost of the government's digital TV strategy.

In January 2007 there was How long will it take for Freeview to fail? , in which he predicted that "two years, maybe three, should be enough for the drain on public funds to become a source of political embarrassment and controversy."

In October last year it was How digital TV will take us back to the future, quoting a British expert to illustrate a gloomy forecast for commercial digital free-to-air TV -- unless all the Freeview channels went onto to Sky Television, thus rendering any other platform irrelevant.

This week (not online, sorry), he scorns the Freeview broadcasters' decision to launch with the capability for HD TV, which he says ignored advice to the Ministry of Culture and heritage from Spectrum Strategy Consultants that HD had been "slow to take off in even the most sophisticated markets" and "would not become a viable proposition for free-to-air broadcasters until after the analogue signal was switched off."

I don't think so. Last night at 9.10pm, New Zealand's first HD TV commercial, a short spot for Playstation, aired on TV3, and the broadcaster has asked advertisers to deliver ad creative in HD where possible within a couple of months.

Yes, TV3 is in HD on Sky as well as terrestrial Freeview, but the number of Freeview HD decoders and -- more importantly -- TV sets with Freeview tuners built-in is probably in excess of 30,000 (there are another 140,000 or so Freeview satellite receivers). I don't think Sky has anything like that penetration with its MySky HDi PVR, which is currently the only way to view HD pictures on Sky.

With any luck, you can take home your new integrated set, or decoder bundle, home, plug in your aerial and start watching (if you can see Prime, you can see Freeview HD). You don't even need a fancy TV set -- the decoder will plug into nearly any TV new enough to still actually be working, and should deliver markedly better pictures.

MySky HDi will set you back either $599 upfront, or $49 plus $15 a month for as long as you keep the box -- on top of whatever Sky services you buy. With Freeview integrated TV sets plunging below $2000, ordinary HD-capable sets under $1000 and approved Freeview HD receivers retailing for as little as $249 (USB tuner add-ons for PCs starting at about $100) paying more money to Sky doesn't look like such a great idea.

Tom quotes Sky CEO John Fellet as saying that recessions typically cause consumers to rationalise that they can invest in Sky as an aid to staying home and not spending money. Which is true, but it's hard to see why the same doesn't apply to Freeview. Also, if you shell out for a new TV and you don't budget for a digital receiver, you're a mug. If you're spending the money on the TV, you might as well get the pictures that do it justice. Even non-HD programmes on One Two and 3 look markedly better via Freeview because the decoder upconverts them to HD resolution.

It is also true that HD flourishing on free-to-air TV bucks the international experience, but that's because New Zealand's late start allowed us to jump -- for once -- to the next technology. Most digital TV in Europe, for example, is being delivered as a pay service via satellite -- because pay TV is the only environment where the economics of delivering HD via satellite work. But in France, four major FTA channels have just launched in digital HD -- on the same spec as New Zealand Freeview HD. The government there is poised to order TV manufacturers to build in the DTT decoders to all new sets. There's some scale for you.

In other news, Sony's Playstation add-on, PlayTV, has finally launched in Europe and is due here early next year. It turns your PS3 into a DTT Freeview PVR. Unfortunately, it looks a bit sucky so far. Only two tuners, no HD capability, simultaneous recording may slow down gameplay, and there's DRM that means you can't move your programmes to any device but a PSP -- even another Playstation.

There is also, of course, a Zinwell Freeview HD-approved PVR set to reach shops by Christmas, with another to come from Topfield. I doubt either will achieve the matchless ease of use of the MySky, but nothing does. I'm interested to hear from readers about their experience with the USB PC products -- and in particular, the regrettably pricey Eye TV for the Mac.

Anyway, that's enough geekery. Tom's conclusion, as is often the case, is that money has been spent competing with Sky that could simply have been spent on a non-commercial public channel to screen on Sky. But it would be madness to settle for a satellite-only digital TV environment in which the gateway was owned and controlled by Sky TV, along with the very equipment we'd use to view the programmes in our homes.

The presence of Freeview has already obliged Sky to raise its game. The establishment of the Documentary Channel as part of the basic package was an early move, and I think there's no doubt that Freeview encouraged Sky to advance its own HD plans. As things stand, Freeview's pictures are of better technical quality, while Sky, of course, has all the content you may wish to pay for, including sport and a decent movie catalogue in HD.

National's attitude to the standoff between Sky and TVNZ over the offering of TVNZ 6 and 7 for free on Sky, and, in turn, the addition of the Sky-owned Prime to Freeview, will be interesting to see, but I suspect the inclination will be to treat it as what it is -- a commercial dispute that will eventually be resolved on commercial terms.

If anything, National's target for an analogue TV switch-off is more aggressive than Labour's was, and we should hope that a date can be set in 2011 -- because that would free up a huge amount of spectrum for more channels. True, that would fracture audiences still further, and massively multi-channel FTA environments typically contain quite a lot of muck -- but nobody ever wished for less bandwidth. Freeview isn't going away, because quite soon, it will simply be television.

NB: Clearly, I have an interest to declare here, in that I'm the host of a TV show that appears on a Freeview-only channel, but I've been saying these things for a while. I'm also a pretty keen consumer of these platforms. One thing the rollout of flagship HD programming programming is that when the big America series appear in a reasonably timely fashion, and in spanking HD, we are far less inclined to download those programmes, save for a looksee at the Fall season launches. I'm sure we're not alone.

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