‘By all measures, TV was a superb technology for its time,’ wrote American George Gilder in 1990. ‘Indeed, its presence and properties defined the time. But now its time is over.’
Eight years later, Australia’s communications minister Richard Alston thought otherwise. He announced a new kind of TV—Digital TV. It would offer ‘a quantum leap in television technology … providing the capacity for the humble TV set to become a central information point in every home’. Metropolitan services began on 1 January 2001.
When Bills proposing changes to Alston’s regime were introduced a fortnight ago, Senators were told ‘Conversion to digital is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television itself 50 years ago’.
So is this medium dead or alive? Clearly very much alive, if you count the roughly three hours a day the average Australian spends watching it.
But if you look at the take-up of Alston’s new kind of TV, you might think George Gilder was closer to the mark. In March, five years after its introduction, less than one in five Australian households had bought a set-top box to receive free-to-air digital TV, although there are many models now available for under $200.
It’s not that they aren’t interested in using their TV’s for digital things. Around a quarter now get pay TV, and most of those are digital subscribers, though it is much more expensive than free-to-air digital TV. The $200 that comfortably buys a set-top box and ongoing access to all free-to-air digital services transmitted in an area, gets only a few months of Foxtel’s or Austar’s digital basic packages.
Three-quarters of households have got DVD players, also readily available for less than $200, and happily spend more money buying or renting discs.
That’s the kind of take-up rate needed for digital TV if the Government was to meet its original timetable for shutting down the analogue TV transmissions we’ve been watching for 50 years. But we’re nowhere near it.
What went wrong? First, some underestimated the strength of free-to-air television, as a leisure activity and a business, in a country where three commercial competitors and two public broadcasters provided a wider range of services than many countries enjoyed before multi-channel pay TV arrived.
Second, the government placed too many restrictions on what those allocated spectrum for digital TV could do with it, and didn’t do enough to ensure people other than incumbent broadcasters got the chance to offer new services.
Third, consumers were not as easily seduced as policy-makers by the promise of a Digital Revolution. They sized up the options and their relative prices and made sensible choices.
Free-to-air digital TV, Australian-style, has been a turkey. A bit of high definition programming, though rarely in sport; an extra TV channel each from the ABC and SBS, put together on shoestrings; some radio-on-your-TV; limited interactivity. In Melbourne, there is still no single on-screen program guide covering all networks—the basic building block of any sophisticated TV system. And if you do move to digital, you lose access to the community channel, Channel 31, because it’s only transmitted in analogue.
This article was first published in The Age on 28 September 2006.
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