New channels taking away HD content.
The number of comments around at the moment on this and other web sites about Seven and Nine no longer having HD channels in favour for additional multi channels is staggering.
It seems there are more viewers angry with losing main channel content in HD than there are viewers happy with the extra channels proving alternative programming.
Perhaps this rage against the new channels may not be so severe if it weren’t for the fact that the new channels 7mate and GEM show very little content in HD. Day time programming on these channels consists of old movies and old TV shows mostly not even in 16:9 wide screen, let alone HD. Evening programming is a mix of mostly repeats with little new content. A few of the new shows like The Big C and Weeds on GEM, and Family Guy and American Dad on 7mate are shown in HD.
But while these channels occupy the HD spectrum of Seven and Nine, there are many shows aired on the main channel which are available in HD that are no longer being seen in HD. Nine News for example was upgraded around being optimised to look better in HD, while many of the US imports are available in HD.
Surely a better use of the HD channels by the networks would be to air whatever the network has available in HD rather than having the HD channel carrying targeted content regardless of whether content is in HD or not.
The networks have gone about it the wrong way. It was only a few years ago when they offered nightly HD break aways and started promoting HD content. All of that is gone now and you rarely even see a mention of HD on free to air TV.
On 7mate itself – there is no reference to the fact it is a HD channel, and so far as the majority of content is concerned, it doesn’t have to be a HD channel. The one and only ad I ever saw for GEM on Nine did make mention it was in “stunning” HD.
Based on all the negative comments floating around about what has happened to HD on free to air TV, it would appear that many people are confused or dismayed as to why this would happen and what is going on.
Why did it happen.
To cut a long story short, each commercial broadcaster is allowed two SD and 1 HD channels only. One of the SD channels must carry the exactly the same programming as the analogue broadcast. That means the main channel must be SD, to match its analogue signal. This cannot change until analogue is switched off everywhere by 2014.
Therefore, in order for one of the commercial networks to have three different channels, keeping in mind that the main channel has to be SD, then they must use the HD channel as a separate channel, instead of a simulcast or HD version of the main channel.
Then the question comes: If the ABC can have four channels, why can’t Seven, Nine and Ten? Yes – if they could have four channels, it would be problem solved as they would be able to have 3 separate SD channels and I HD channel which could remain as a simulcast of their main channel. But it would also mean that the HD channel could be no better than 720p resolution like ABC News 24 is, as opposed to the 1080i they use now one ONE HD, Gem and 7mate. Current licensing terms only allow the ABC to have four channels, with the commercials restricted to three.
Back in the 90’s in planning for digital TV in Australia, there was at least the foresight to include high definition as part of the requirement. But instead of guaranteeing the main channels would always be available in HD, the only requirement in place for the networks is that there is 20 hours a week of HD content provided. That content can be at any time, and does not have to be anything from the main channel.
That is where the mistake lies. If they had the foresight to consider HD as a necessary part of the implementation of digital TV in Australia as part of the way the technology was moving, then they should also have taken the necessary steps to guarantee access to quality HD programming – not just 20 hours a week.
Now – and obviously – the majority of what most people would consider quality programming is on each of the networks’ main channel. And why wouldn’t it be – afterall – 100% of the population has access to the main channels whereas only 75% have access to the digital channels and about 65% access to HD free to air*. The main channels is still where all the business is, and still accounts for 85% of what people watch on free to air TV each night. That’s 85% watching the five main channels, compared to 15% spread over 9 digital channels. Regardless of digital channels, each networks’ core focus is its main channel which is also their core source of income.
It would have made sense that the legislation was in place to guarantee that the main channels should be broadcast in HD, in the same way that it was guaranteed for the main channels to also be in SD so people could use cheaper SD only digital gear when converting up from analogue.
This would have meant that each commercial broadcaster could have just the one secondary channel, with the main channel offered in both SD and HD.
The role of FreeView.
FreeView exists as a means to promote free to air TV as a multi channel option to pay TV. Their ads focus on the concept of “more for free”, as over the last 18 months, the number of unique channels has more than doubled.
It would appear that the push for more channels, driven by FreeView, and the desire for free to air TV to claw back some of the market lost to pay TV is the main reason why they have all gone for the option of providing three channels instead of keeping most watched main channel content in HD.
However, there are now people are now realising that it is not the absolute number of channels that is important, it is the quality of content. Viewers may have more options than ever before in terms of what to watch on free to air TV, but now there is very little HD content to be seen.
Many people have spent the money upgrading to HD TVs so they can see their favourite shows in HD, not so they can see channels filled with repeats or shows not good enough for any decent main channel time slot.
The worst part of losing the main channels in HD is the fact that it came without warning. Promotions of 7mate made no mention that 7HD would be lost as a result. Channel Nine didn’t warn anyone that 9HD would be no more when GEM started. At least Seven moved the HD service to a new channel, so people would still be able to use 70 for the main channel. Perhaps they were hoping noone would notice the difference in quality.
As for Nine, many who were using 9HD channel 90 to watch the main channel were left confused when suddenly channel 90 was showing GEM – a completely new channel. Comments in related stories here on Throng show people trying rescans to find where 9HD moved to and demonstrate the confusion in the market place.
As far as I could see, apart from Throng and similar websites, there is absolutely nothing on the media to explain what was going on with the new channels and what it meant for existing HD channels. People are confused and annoyed, and the lack of information simply enhances the rage.
Massive drop in number of people watching HD free to air TV.
Just 2 years ago – this time in 2008 – you could only get HD TV from free to air TV or BluRay, having just won the format war over HD DVD. Foxtel then did not have any HD channels. Now, Foxtel is about to launch another 4 HD channels, taking the total number of HD channels to 20. While free to air has made HD channels out of their HD simulcasts of their main channels thereby severely reducing the number of people who will be watching free to air in HD.
Just looking at the channel shares in this weeks’ ratings so far: GEM is averaging about 1%, 7mate closer to 2%, ABC News 24 0.5%, and ONE around 1% (although some of this figure includes people would watch ONE on SD if they don’t have HD).
SBS ONE is averaging around 5% of the shares – if you assume that all of the 65% of the population who have access to free to air HD would chose to watch SBS ONE in HD whenever they were watching an SBS show, that means that SBS ONE HD would now be the most watched free to air HD channel in Australia with a share of about 3.5%!
Before 7mate and GEM, you would have had significantly more people watching 7HD and 9HD respectively. Given both main channels Seven and Nine average around 24% of the shares at the moment, and again assuming that if you have access to HD, you will by default chose to watch the HD version of a channel (and why wouldn’t you), then you would have had share of around 16% for each of 7HD and 9HD.
Let’s put that into perspective. From 32% of the population watching Australia’s two most watched TV channels in HD down to just 3% watching the same two channels a week later now that they have become 7mate and GEM. These two channels have reduced the free to air HD television audience from about 37% down to around 8%.
However – I must point out, that because OzTam have never measured ratings of HD channels separately to main channels when showing the same content, we will never really know for sure how many people were watching the main channels in HD, other than assuming that the percentage of people who have access to HD free to air TV can be applied to main channel shares on a pro rata basis.
Free to air TV will ultimately lose.
Is it any wonder people are angry? If you spend thousands on a decent HD TV, don’t you want to use it to its full potential? Looks like the free to air networks are not concerned about the problem as they know that most shows will end up being watched regardless of whether they are in HD or not. Masterchef has never been in HD anywhere yet it rated through the roof.
The networks know, that while there is an outcry from many about the lack of main channel content in HD, at the end of the day, their main channels will continue to rate better than their secondary channels regardless of whether they are aired in HD or not.
But as people look elsewhere for their HD content, free to air will ultimately lose out as being a significant supplier of free to air programming in Australia. It is a situation that they will not be able to do anything about until the end of analogue leading up to 2014 where we may see all of their digital channels rearranged possibly bringing back the main channels to HD, and possibly, further down the track, resulting in all channels being in HD. By then though, there will probably be UHD breaking as new domestic technology. UHD is ultra high definition, and gives four times the pixels there are in HD.
Is there a solution?
It is too late now to go back to the free to air networks and force them to provide adequate main channel content on their HD channels. Now that they are out there with new channels, you can’t just turn around and take that off them.
It is possible that ratings will be affected by the lack of main channel content in HD. Only ratings will drive a change in the situation if the networks are to remain with three channels. Perhaps they could incorporate late night HD encores of prime time main channel shows, replay them during the day (subject to classification restrictions) or have a night of HD catch ups from main channel content. Maybe the more that Seven and Nine in particular see viewers angry about losing main channel content in HD, they may consider acting on it – especially if ratings are being affected.
The only other possibility is that Seven, Nine and Ten are allowed a 3rd SD channel, like what the ABC has. That way they could have three channels while also providing the main channel in HD, although the HD channel would have to be at 720p instead of 1080i they are now. If this ever happened, it is unlikely Ten would move ONE HD away from HD as they have a big commitment to the HD sports channel. As for the ABC, they have already indicated that, while the arrangement of channels is not ideal for everyone, it is the best they can offer with the bandwidth they have until they review the situation in 2013.
Once analogue is gone everywhere by 2014, we may then see the main channels return to HD. But, unless HD take up is very high, the networks will remain in a position where they must keep their main and highest rating channel in SD so that 100% of the audience can see it. To avoid this scenario, and the possibility of having main channels in SD for many more years to come, legislation should be put in place to ensure that all digital TV receiving equipment form now on come with a digital tuner capable of receiving HD TV, as well as the latest standards in digital compression technology which should hopefully allow all of the digital channels to be in HD in the future.
However, if we continue to allow excessive overlaps between technologies – like we have with the switch from analogue to digital, the technology itself risks being out of date by the time the transition is over. The role out of the National Broadband network could well see free to air TV delivered by internet in the future, which could mean no limits, other than licensing and legislation, to the channels, content and quality of content TV networks can deliver.
* Last figures for digital take up were 75%. It has also been reported, that roughly 90% of the population who have gone digital also have access to HD, which equates to about two thirds overall.
* Ratings shares used based on hypothetical average week, loosely based on OzTam 5 city metro weeks 37-40 shares.