When Ten launched ONE HD in March 2009, it spelt the end of Ten’s main channel content being seen in HD. In July 2010, when ABC News 24 was launched, the same was the case for ABC1 shows being seen on ABC HD. Now it is about to happen with Seven and Nine and their respective high definition channels as Seven launches 7mate late September and Nine rush to launch their third channel at about the same time. SBS will then remain as the only free to air broadcaster with an HD channel simulcasting main channel content.
This all poses the question of the short term future of HD in Australia. With HD TVs becoming cheaper and more readily available, it seems the free to air networks are going backwards in delivering HD content as it is lesser watched secondary channels ending up in HD as opposed to the main channels which are still watched by the most people.
Each network only have to show 20 hours a week of true HD content – which equates to just 3 hours a day. Easily met by any of the broadcasters just with the amount of regular shows already in HD.
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. As 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 – could be shown on their HD channel at a different time to their main channel but also opens up the possibility of some shows actually made in HD not being seen in HD on free to air at all. FOX8 make a big deal of this fact in promoting Glee – already seen on Ten – as being shown first in HD on FOX8HD.
One possible solution to the problem is to temporarily allow the commercial networks a 4th channel – which would mean all three of their channels could be presented in standard definition leaving the HD channel able to simulcast the main channel – or at least be showing what is available in HD on the main channel at the same time as it is on the main channel while perhaps being allowed only to break away when there is not a program on the main channel made in HD.
The possibility of fourth digital channels has been raised as part of sports anti-siphoning discussions giving the networks greater ability to cover sport over their digital channels without interfering with the channels‘ theme or programming. ABC already carry four distinct channels, but they do so at the expense of the resolution of the HD channel and by lowering bit rates on others.
The problem with themed or niche channels is it limits their ability to remain flexible in terms of being able to provide extra coverage for major news events or sport. 7TWO – as a channel without any real theme as such – has been used to provide extended or special news services for Seven as well as encores of main channel shows, while 7mate from the outset is said to contain some sport.
Nine with GO do not have the same flexibility as Seven do, and if the new channel is themed as classics or crime, there will be even less flexibility. Sure – these channels can break theme from time to time if required, but they risk alienating the very audience they will build. For example – if you turn onto ONE HD, you expect to always see sports. On a classics channel, you expect to always see classics. On GO – you’d expect to see regular GO programming and so on.
It is still over three 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., including possibly reverting their HD channels back to showing the main channel content – after all it is the main channels people still mostly watch.
Possibly, once analogue is gone completely, all free to air channels might end up in HD. Let’s hope so – otherwise other sources will quickly take over as being the main providers of HD content in Australia – especially as the National Broadband Network rolls out, and as Foxtel keep adding to their collection of HD channels - while free to air TV will be left behind with only a few niche or themed HD channels not carrying their networks’ best content.