Australians have a natural affinity for complaining. Often, it’s for a very good reason. Other times it’s for what seems like a good reason. Then there the times that without the facts, it’s hard to do anything but complain. HD TV in Australia is a bit of all three.
High definition TV broadcasts are one of the biggest bug-bears of Aussie sports fans. You can’t see your NRL or AFL in HD on any free-to-air network, the cricket every Summer is broadcast live in (not so) stunning standard definition and pretty much every other sport is in the same boat.
One HD, when it was first launched, offered sports fans hope. Live sport in HD on a dedicated channel. It was a sports fans dream. But now that the Ten network has abandoned HD broadcasts of F1 races in favour of coverage on its main channel, it’s timely to discuss the HD landscape as it stands for sport.
So why aren’t more sports on the HD Channels?
First, let’s look at the TV landscape. We have 18 Channels:
- One (HD)
- 7Mate (HD)
- GEM (HD)
- ABC 1
- ABC 2
- ABC 3
- ABC News 24 (HD)
- SBS One (Simulcast on SBS HD also) (HD)
- SBS Two
- TVS (Community TV)
- 4ME (7’s Infomercial Channel)
- Extra (9’s Infomercial Channel)
So in total, there are currently five HD channels.
The important first question is – why isn’t every channel in HD? The answer is easy – the spectrum (or space in the air) in which TV is broadcast is limited. Each network has enough space for one HD channel and two SD channels, with the exception of the ABC who have additional spectrum. Nine and Seven are able to fit in their infomercial channels using a higher level of compression with a new broadcast method, which we’ll explain a bit later.
So why isn’t each network’s main channel broadcast in HD? To answer that question, we need a little bit of a history lesson.
Digital TV started in our main capital cities in 2001. Back then, huge CRT screens were still the norm while flat panel TV’s were a long way off becoming popular due to ridiculously high prices.
A new TV purchased in 2001 through to 2006-7 was not guaranteed to have a digital TV tuner built into it, and if it did it was unlikely to be a high definition one. Alternatively, set-top boxes were seen as an affordable alternative to getting the benefits of digital without buying a whole new TV, but once again standard definition boxes were the norm.
Today, that means that hundreds of thousands of people who purchased new TVs or set-top boxes to be part of the early wave into the digital revolution simply cannot tune into the HD channels that are being broadcast. So if you have an SD set top box or SD digital tuner built into your TV, you simply cannot see the HD channels – they appear in the channel list, but when you tune in you get an error or a black screen.
Knowing that, the TV networks had a very interesting decision to make when launching their extra digital channels.
Originally each network had two channels – their main channel, and the same channel simulcast in HD. Most of them added another channel in 2009, including Nine’s “Go!” and Seven’s “7Two” being examples of that.
In 2010 when adding a third channel – programmers and executives had to look at that available spectrum and decide what to do.
If Channel 9 had put its main channel Nine in HD, with Go! And GEM in SD that would have worked, and fitted perfectly into the spectrum. Same for the Seven Network. Seven in HD alongside 7Two and 7Mate would be just fine.
However if they did that all those people with SD only reception would not be seeing those main channels. Does that matter? You bet it does. Nine News, Seven News, the Current affairs shows, Big Bang theory… All those prime time shows are an important part of the networks’ battles for ratings and revenue.
Between five and six million people are likely to be watching TV at any given time during the early evening. If 20 per cent of them simply cannot see the HD channels you’re potentially losing a huge audience.
Consider that the news in each state is won and lost on just tens of thousands of people, this is a crucial decision to make.
In other words, the potential audience on the HD channels is lower than on the SD channels. If the complaints about the cricket not being in HD are bad enough, imagine the switchboard at Channel 9 if a few hundred thousand people simply didn’t have a choice of watching a game because it was on HD and not available to them.
The Formula 1 is a real exception to the rule – except it isn’t. Network Ten put the F1 on One HD for a couple of years, but each and every round of the Grand Prix season the races have still been shown on Channel Ten in delay. Ten decided recently to broadcast the races live on its main channel, but to do that they had to abandon the HD option.
The sad news is that nothing can be done. You can write as many letters as you like to the networks but the sport you love just won’t be coming to a HD channel any time soon.
But fear not, there is hope on the horizon.
At the end of 2013, Analogue TV broadcasts will be switched off. That means anyone without a set top box or built-in digital TV tuner will not be able to see a thing. A short while after that, the government is requiring a ‘re-stack’ of the digital TV spectrum. A re-stack means moving channels around to be back to back in the spectrum, which will maximise the available space and allow the government to auction off additional spectrum for a few billion dollars in revenue.
This is where new technology comes into play. Current broadcasts are compressed by the networks and de-compressed by your TV or set-top-box using a technical format called MPEG-2. Since digital broadcasts began though, a better format has been developed. MPEG-4 allows better quality pictures to be transmitted in the same or smaller space used by current MPEG-2 technologies.
What this means is that each network could broadcast multiple HD channels using the same amount of spectrum.
Of course, it’s not going to be simple. Considering that this can only happen in 2014 or later, and that by then most people will have upgraded to a television or set top box with HD support, compatibility will be less of an issue. The main problem will be the huge number of people without MPEG4 support in their devices. Some current devices offer MPEG4 compatibility, but the majority don’t.
Naturally, all of this relates to free-to-air TV. Foxtel has a very impressive HD strategy, although you’ll have to pay for it.