Why the hold-up to change primary channels to HD?

Networks, government, advertisers... Who is to blame and who will make the change viewers are screaming out for?

2014-09-25_2017Sports fans waiting to see Grand Finals are once again out of luck, nine months after analogue television was switched off around the country.

While Seven and Nine are required by the anti-siphoning legislation to screen the AFL and NRL grand finals on their primary channels, there is nothing to prevent them from simulcasting them on 7mate or GEM respectively.

Premium sport along with other genres continues to be screened in SD while the industry and government are distracted by other concerns such as FreeviewPlus, Piracy and killing off Community TV. That’s despite Nine CEO David Gyngell telling media at the 2012 NRL rights conference games would be in HD from 2014.

Nine does produce the NRL in high definition, which screens in glorious HD on FOX Sports. Viewers in Perth and Adelaide also get to see NRL on GEM, but where it really counts -Sydney and Brisbane- standard definition prevails.

When questioned on David Gyngell’s position this week, Nine did not reply by deadline.

Meanwhile, Seven doesn’t even produce its AFL in HD, despite it continually touting itself as a leader in sports broadcasting. Seven-produced games on FOX Footy are upscaled, but not to “full” HD.

This week Mumbrella published a story that Seven Melbourne general manager Lewis Martin had ‘backflipped’ on a pledge to screen the Grand Final in HD.

A Seven spokesperson told TV Tonight, “We produce our AFL coverage for our primary channel, Channel 7, which is a standard definition channel.”

Of course if our networks had switched their primary channels to HD nine months ago (isn’t that why we all bought new TVs?) none of this would be a problem. We could watch premium drama, entertainment, documentary and news in HD too.

But as FreeTV explains, networks can’t make that move under current regulation. Last December FreeTV wrote to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recommending Legislative change to the Broadcast Services Act to drop the requirement that primary channels must be an SDTV service.

“Under the current regulatory framework broadcasters are forbidden to show their primary channel in HD and under the antisiphoning rules listed sports must be on a primary channel unless you get permission to do otherwise,” said Free TV CEO, Julie Flynn.

“So the first step which we think is absolutely a no-brainer and can be done simply and quickly is to get rid of the regulation in Schedule 4. Deciding whether or not to run your primary channel in HD should be a commercial decision for broadcasters.”

While Seven indicated it backed FreeTV’s push, a TEN spokesperson this week told TV Tonight, “We have asked the Government to get rid of the regulation currently preventing us from broadcasting our primary channel, TEN, in HD. Once the restriction is gone we will be able to provide more premium HD content to viewers.”

But while networks are awaiting regulatory change, what’s stopping them from simulcasting premium sport in HD now? Not the anti-siphoning list, which rules only that it must seek approval if it wants Tier A sports only on multichannels. Not OzTAM ratings, which allows networks to merge numbers where a content simulcast applies, a la Family Feud.

No, it appears to be driven by money. Ad rates for Primary channels are around 7 – 10 times higher than those on multichannels.

Victor Corones from MagnaGlobal said, “There is generally more available audiences sitting on the primary channels which also happen to be the more expensive channels from a rates and Cost Per Thousand perspective. I would also think that there a greater chance of catching more viewers if the show sits on the well-known primary channel.

“Part of it may relate to launching shows during the event where they want audiences to stay tuned that day.”

Meanwhile Free to Air viewers can look forward to two glorious standard definition finals across two weeks.

39 Responses

  1. Its a bloody joke. Networks need to pull their finger out and get onto it ASAP. The government though is part of the problem. They too need to pull their fingers out. Its 2014 not 1956. We gotta stop living in the dark ages. TV and internet are both stuck there right now.

  2. Deciding to go with crappy MPEG-2 was a stupid decision. It’s compression algorithm means that each broadcast network can only have one HD digital stream in their allocated part of the spectrum (the old 7MHz wide channels). Even so, it still can’t be transmitted in full HD (1080) at a non-reduced bit-rate without stealing bit-rate (and therefore, quality) from the other digital streams sharing the same channel.

    As for sport in HD, that would be great but the reality is that people watched when it was in SD and have continued to do so. There is no real incentive for the networks (or the govt or the various sporting bodies) to move to HD broadcasts.

  3. It’s a joke that in Australia you can’t watch first run popular premium entertainment, both local and international as well as sports/events in HD.

    It’s 2014 for crying out loud. 10 years ago you could watch it in HD, (7HD, ABC HD etc) why not now?

    It’s all about the $$$ so the networks use their HD channels to screen old B&W movies half the time, while the first run stuff is in crappy SD.

    What is wrong with this backwards country when it comes to technology?

    -Rant over.

  4. I laughed (until I cried) in Mad as Hell this week when Shaun announced “Responding to the significant media reforms this country needs Malcolm Turnbull has abolished Community TV”.

  5. I wonder if people say “I can’t see any difference between SD and HD” because the FTA HD channels have such poor picture quality and anything with a bit of movement becomes a blocky mess

  6. Go David! It’s absurd that the primary channels are not in HD.

    Go the US for a few weeks and you get used to watching all the big network stations show virtually everything (content dependent) in HD… including the commercials.

    Come back here and the first thing you notice is the murky soup of a picture that we are forced to put up with.

    Yes Pertinax if you’re watching a 28-inch screen from across a room you’re not going to see much difference. But for the majority of households with bigger TVs the difference would be obvious.

    Bring it on!

  7. What I don’t get is, when watching GEM, GO, 72, ONE etc. via WIN, Prime and TEN in Wollongong at weekends all we see are ads for Dubbo, Albury, Bendigo, Coffs Harbour, Wagga, Tamworth, Orange etc. car yards, office equipment suppliers, clubs, takeaways, etc., – all being totally irrelevant and of no interest to me. Are advertisers actually paying for this? If so, what a waste.

  8. This is an ad sales issue. I can understand the networks not wanting to air the game on 7mate and GEM if viewers migrate there from Seven and NIne, and they can only sell ads on the digital channels for a fraction of the cost of the main network. I get that.

    But that is where the networks need to educate and sway the advertisers. A viwewer is a viwerer. If they are watchig on 7 or 7mate – it’s still a viewer.

  9. this clearly wont happen

    but say 500000-1 million people refused to watch the AFL grand final because it isn’t in HD, you watch the networks change their position overnight.

    networks know that viewers while preferring to watch the game in hd, will still watch it no matter what and hence no attitude to change their policies or simulcast.

  10. Here are some ACMA statistics from 2011 on TV ownership in Australia:

    Those that have access to only SD and not HD is really low. Considering that the study is a few years old, you would have to conclude that it’s even lower than these numbers suggest now that the analogue switch off has been completed.

  11. @Michael Wyres – The same bonehead government that allowed the import and sale of $39 SD-only set top boxes are offspring of the same bonehead government that told us “we’ll never need more than 10 channels” (hence the later need for 0, 5A and 11, and the changing of 4’s frequency so no one could see WIN4), “FM radio is an American fad, we don’t see it being introduced in Australia” (hence TV channels 3 and 4 being placed in the 88-108 FM band). Now we see the killing off of Aust. Network and Community TV.

  12. For me it raises a question that perhaps you can answer, David.
    If it costs 7 to 10 times more to advertise on the primary channel, are there advertisers who only chose to advertise there?
    I would have thought that in today’s market, it would be all bundled so that, say Telstra, buy a package that runs across all platforms that the television network delivers.
    Is this the case? Because I rarely see advertisements on GEM that don’t also run on 9 and Go!

  13. There are really a few issues that need to be addressed here:

    1) SD needs to be dropped completely, forcing all channels to be HD
    2) Minimum bit rates must be set to ensure decent picture quality (try comparing an AFL game produced by Foxtel that is simulcast on 7mate)
    3) Channels need to move to MPEG4, maybe not the primary at this stage, but at least the auxiliary channels
    4) Ban home shopping/filler channels (i.e. TV4ME, Extra, etc.)

  14. The problem is there was a bone headed decision somewhere along the way that allowed devices – (televisions, set-top boxes, etc) – to be sold without support for HD. There are people out there that bought new equipment that cannot view the HD channels, and hence to meet the requirement that all people must have access to the primary channel, the primary channel is done in SD. Of course, nobody ever accused a politician of making a logical decision.

  15. The reason why main channels have to be SD is because Alston stuffed up the introduction of digital TV, and then caved to the networks who were worried that HD would be too expensive for many advertising watchers.

    If they waited a bit until the technology was cheaper and done it properly we could have had MPEG4 HD in few years instead of the mess we have now after 14 years.

    But most viewers don’t care about HD. With my new glasses and a 75cm 1080i Panasonic and I can’t tell the difference between HD and SD from my couch. I think skin tones are slightly better on the HD but I’m not sure I could pick the difference in double blind test.

  16. I don’t understand why they have legislation on showing sports only on the primary channel. It’s only sport, it is not like it matters or is important to anyone, it’s not news or anything educational. Just get rid of this stupid legislation which will make both sport and non sport fans a lot happier.

  17. @Russell
    Advertisers want to reach millions of people simultaneously and spend a lot of money doing so because this demonstrates that their product is worth that (even if it isn’t).

    If you want to reach 50k people you can do it with accurate targeted marketing on the internet for a fraction of the price.

    Secondary Channels were designed by the networks not to bring in more revenue but slow the decline in live FTA viewing and hamper the growth of Foxtel.

  18. I spoke to Stephen Conroy about the this three years ago and he made the same argument.

    But I don’t quite understand either why they would be financially worse off simulcasting (other than because of production costs) – could they not charge a bit extra for simulcasted ads? Or just put different ads on those channels?

    None of it seemed to stop them simulcasting in HD in the pre-multichannel era, from almost a decade ago now, which is just crazy!

  19. I don’t understand why it costs more to reach 1000 people on 7 than it does on 7mate. Shouldn’t it be the same?

    (Victor Corones from MagnaGlobal said, “…the primary channels….also happen to be the more expensive channels from a …Cost Per Thousand perspective)


    He also says “I would also think that there a greater chance of catching more viewers if the show sits on the well-known primary channel”

    I kinda disagree. I think if you put on 7mate and promote “The AFL Grand Final. For the first time ever in stunning HD only on 7mate” you would actually get more viewers watching on 7mate!

    Anyway. What is the government’s response. They really need to change the law. Ten, ABC1, Seven, Nine should all be in HD.

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