In July 2010, when the ABC launches its new 24 hour news channel – ABC News 24 – there will no longer be ABC programming content from ABC1 seen in HD. This is because the new news channel will be using the ABC’s HD channel.
The ABC from then on will have four distinct channels – ABC1, ABC2, ABC3 and ABC News 24. But only the news channel will be seen in HD. The ABC will review this arrangement in 2013 close to the switching off of analogue TV when all viewers will have digital TV.
The lack of ABC content in HD is similar to Ten’s situation with ONE occupying their HD channel. When Seven and Nine launch third channels later this year or next, the question again will be raised as to what of the HD content on their main channel. Both Seven and Nine do air a number of shows made in HD (moreso Nine) which would not be seen at all if their third channel becomes a full time unique channel like 7TWO and GO.
This all poses the question of the short term future of free to air HD TV in Australia. With HD TVs becoming cheaper and more readily available, it seems the networks are going backwards in delivering HD content. They only have to show 20 hours a week of true HD content – which Seven and Nine easily meet with regular programming while there is enough sports in HD on ONE to meet Ten’s requirement. Note – in the case of channel Nine, Nine 3D trial is not a full time new channel.
Unfortunately, it is the rules that free to air TV is stuck with during the transition from digital to analogue that are holding back the networks. The main content of any free to air network must be presented on both their analogue channel as well as one of the standard definition digital channels. That means – if they want to have their main channel content on their HD channel as well, that the HD and one standard definition channel will end up with the same content. Given the commercial networks are only allowed to have two standard definition channels and one high definition channel, any network that chose to keep the high definition channel the same as the standard can really only have two channels.
Launching a third channel ultimately breaks the standard / high definition simulcasts. When Ten launch their third channel in 2011, they will no longer offer a standard definition simulcast of ONE HD. When Seven and Nine launch their third channels, their HD channels will no longer be simulcasts of their main channel. This could mean that shows made in HD – such as Underbelly on Nine – might be shown on their HD channel at a different time to their main channel. They could even premiere shows on the HD channel first which air on the main channel later.
My guess is that both Seven and Nine’s third channels will initially be HD break aways like what they used to do in 2007 and 2008 so as not to fragment the audience further between analogue, standard definition digital and high definition digital. As it stands, the networks are still coming to terms with the impact of their secondary digital channels which have effectively reduced their main channel audience by as much as 15% while the overall network audience remains much the same. While the choice is good for the consumer, it is a tricky situation in managing advertising between the channels and what the networks can charge advertisers for ad space.
One idea of how to manage the HD problem would be to simulcast any show made in HD on the HD channel while offering alternative programming at times when the content on the main channel is not in HD. Given Ten are not launching their third channel until 2011, it would come as no surprise if Seven and Nine also hold off. Although the advent of Nine 3D could see Nine take a different direction. There is already talk of Underbelly 3D for Nine for example, while Ten have reportedly been questioning the availability of spectrum in the future to offer 3D broadcasts.
It is still three and a half years until analogue is completely switched off everywhere. Not until then will we see any free to air network – commercial or not – make full use of their digital channels knowing that those channels will be available to everyone. It would actually be a good idea for the future of HD TV in Australia to legislate so that all set top boxes and digital receivers in Australia by 2014 can receive HD channels, MPEG-4 signals and maybe even be 3D ready (although MPEG-4 should be enough for 3D).