2009 was the year the second digital channels launched: ONE HD, SBS TWO replacing SBS News, GO!, 7TWO and ABC’s third channel ABC3.
2010 was the year we saw the HD main channel simulcasts of ABC1, Seven and Nine given up to make way for even more digital channels – none of which could be described as an ideal use of each network’s available HD stream.
In 2011, the only new channel that we know for sure will be launched is ELEVEN.
Will there be any more free to air channels or have we reached as far as it will go prior to the switch off of analogue in 2014?
When ELEVEN launches, there will in fact be 15 distinct free to air digital channels (plus community TV in some areas).
Seven, Nine and Ten are currently only allowed to provide two standard definition channels and one high definition channel. The ABC are able to have one extra standard definition channel than the commercials, while SBS remain the only network with an HD channel that simulcasts their main channel.
What the ABC are doing with three standard definition channels and one high definition channel is the most you can get out of the current available bandwidth to each network – although some would argue that even this is pushing it too far and the quality of each of the individual channels within the multiplex are poor.
But it stands to reason, that if the ABC can have four channels, with one being HD, why can’t the others? Technically they can, but it does come down to licensing. The only way we would see more channels comes out of Seven, Nine or Ten would be if licensing conditions changed to allow them to do the same as the ABC.
In talks relating to the anti-siphoning list during 2010, the suggestion was raised of the commercial networks being allowed to have a 4th digital channel to help cover more sporting broadcasts without sacrificing regular programming content. Therefore there is a possibility of 4th channels.
If this was to happen – Seven, Nine and Ten – were allowed to have a 4th channel, I believe the provision of such should be highly conditional. Given that the third channels for Seven and Nine have effectively removed ALL main channel HD content, and ONE did the same for Ten nearly two years ago, any suggestion of a 4th channel should re-instate the HD content that we are now missing out on.
New conditions for HD content should go FAR beyond the 20 hours per week that was put in place nearly a decade ago, when hardly anyone owned or could even afford an HD TV.
The way I would like to see the 4th channel work is as per the following rules, which would revent a network from using it as a 4th unique channel and income stream. Keep in mind, this is all opinion based, and hypothetical – there is nothing anywhere at this stage that suggests 4th channels will actually happen any time soon, if at all.
1. The 4th channel will be the HD channel. The first three channels all revert to SD.
2. The HD channel must show HD content for at least 18 hours a day. In 2011, there is no reason why the networks could not easily fill this amount of HD content daily. Just about every TV show in the US is made in HD, most locally are as well.
3. The HD channel should provide an HD simulcast of the main channel during specified prime time hours – say 6pm – 10.30pm nightly.
4. The HD channel cannot be used as a distinct 4th channel. It must be either simulcasting the main channel or broadcasting HD content seen on the other digital channels the network owns. This rule gives the flexibility for Ten for example to still show HD sports when available while showing Ten content in HD during prime time. The only possible exception would be if sport runs over time and the network chooses to return to normal programming on the main channel while leaving the HD channel to continue with the sport.
5. In some cases, HD shows could be time shifted. If, for example, a network has two or even three shows airing in one night that they own in HD, they could opt to show the main channel HD shows live (by rule 3, it has to be the main channel programming during specified prime time hours), then play shows seen on their other channels in HD at different times.
6. The reverse of point 5, a show would be allowed to air on the HD channel before it airs on one of the SD channels so long as it occurs within a 7 day period. This would allow HD premieres to come before they air in SD on other channels. The result of points 5 and 6 do cause there to be four different shows on at once but it does mean that anything seen on the HD channel is also seen on an SD channel even at a different time.
The fourth channel scenario, coupled with these rules in fact will benefit everybody.
It would mean, that all of a network’s content is seen over their three SD channels, while most, if not all of a network’s content available in HD would be seen on their HD channel. It would mean prime time main channel content is seen in HD again, while other content available in HD that may be seen on other channels can also be seen in HD as well as SD.
It would mean that sport would be able to be seen in HD without impacting on the regular programming of other channels. It would mean that all people with digital set top boxes whether they have HD or not can see all shows that a network offers.
Such a solution would surely please everybody over the next three years until analogue is switched off.
Then – later in the decade when we start using MPEG-4 and all three of a network’s channels can be upgraded to HD, the 4th channel would become redundant, and could then be used in reverse to provide an SD MPEG-2 signal of either the main channel or a mix of the three channels for those with old digital tuners.
Again – the only new FTA channel we know will happen for sure in 2011 is ELEVEN. While there is room for SBS THREE, funding issues will most likely mean it does not happen any time soon. SBS should focus more on revamping the offerings over their two channels in any case before they think of a third. SBS ONE is now regularly beaten in channel shares by one or more of the commercial digital channels from Seven and Nine.