Its an issue that has frustrated Australian TV viewers for the last ten years, why is it not possible to watch content broadcast by Australia’s Free to Air (FTA) networks in High Definition (HD).
This week viewers achieved a significant victory when Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced a bill into Parliament that removes the requirement for TV networks to broadcast their primary channel in standard definition (SD). The legislation is expected to pass through the senate and become law in early September.
However don’t expect FTA networks to rush the process of converting current SD channels into HD channels once the law is changed. There are still significant technical and financial hurdles to cross.
Due to the botched process that introduced Digital TV in this country, there remains a small but significant percentage of Televisions in the community that only support HD broadcasts. FTA broadcasters whom are already witnessing declining audience levels are nervous about leaving these viewers behind.
Then there are the viewers that don’t have an antenna, but access channels such as the ABC, Seven, Nine an Ten via the Foxtel cable or satellite networks. This is where the real argument begins as broadcasters battle over who should bare the costs.
Existing HD channels, Gem, 7Mate, and OneHD have never been made available to many Foxtel Satellite customers as the networks refuse to significant fees to have them added to the satellite owned by Optus. Many Cricket fans with Foxtel have been left angry this winter, unable to watch the Ashes coverage on Gem.
Nine, Seven, and Ten declined to comment yesterday but have previously argued that Foxtel should be paying the retransmission fee to Optus as the HD channels are providing a benefit to Foxtel customers. Foxtel argues that the Free to Air networks should be paying the fee as the increased audience is of benefit to those networks advertisers.
A spokesperson for the ABC yesterday told this website that, “we have no date as yet for the transfer of our main channel to HD.“ and added, “the ABC does not support increases in fees to Foxtel.”
While viewers may believe it’s a simple process to add an additional HD channel to satellite line-up. In truth it’s a much more complicated scenario. A single HD channel takes up 4 times the bandwidth of an equivalent SD channel. Its further complicated by the fact each broadcaster provides a different version of the channel for each of the five major metro markets meaning if ABC, Seven, Nine and Ten were to include their primary channels to the Foxtel platform it would require the addition of 20 HD channels to the Optus satellite, and that’s not including SBS, 7Mate, Gem, and One which also require multiple channels to serve different markets.
A spokesperson for Foxtel told this website yesterday that the Pay-TV provider was unlikely to pay the cost of adding FTA HD channels to the service. “The legislation has been introduced but not yet passed, so there is a bit of time to pass before this issue arises.
“FTA broadcasters pay Optus to have their signals carried on the satellite. We would expect that to continue to be the case. However, we have not had a chance to discuss the latest developments with the broadcasters.”
Foxtel recently introduced a new IQ3 set-top box that combines terrestrial tv with satellite channels, effectively bypassing the need to add FTA HD channels to the satellite, however user adoption of this device has been slow with a number of customers complaining about bugs in the IQ3 software.
With FTA Broadcasters and Foxtel heading towards a stalemate, its likely Australia could have two tiers of quality in TV coverage for some time to come.