Still switched off?

22 Nov 2006

Senator Coonan's new plan isn't all bad, writes Margaret Simons

Ready, Get Set, Go Digital was the title of Senator Helen Coonan’s much anticipated Digital Action Plan, released last week. The title conjures an image of athletes poised and ready to go for the sprint. This is rather funny, given that the real story of our progress towards the digital age is one of false starts, backward steps and tripwire regulation.

The Action Plan is aimed at convincing enough Australians to invest in digital television technology to allow the analogue television signal to be switched off between 2010 and 2012. This is important, because digital television signals use much less spectrum than analogue. Once the analogue signal goes, great swathes of spectrum become available. The rationale for limiting the number of broadcasting licences to a lucky few media moguls is totally altered and in theory, consumers could have almost endless choices of content.

Will it be a case of too many channels but nothing to watch, or will this be the dawning of a new era of media plenty? That depends on many factors, including what business models will sustain quality content in the future. Digital television is one of the new technologies destined to take the “mass” out of media.

Some suggest that new technology will lead to an entirely new model for the media and entertainment industries. This theory has been dubbed “the long tail” - a reference to the look of the graph if you plot the numbers of hits to news and information websites. First comes the big bulge up the front, representing the websites of established mass media companies. Then comes the tail of low use sites - and the tail goes on, and on, and on. It doesn’t peter out, and in the end its cumulative numbers are bigger than those of the mass media at the front.

The theory is that because new media makes distribution cheap and near universal, the media market of the future will not be only about blockbusters and mass audiences, it will also be about the very many comparatively small circulation outlets. Ratings will no longer be the only measure of success.

The internet bookshop, for example, makes as much money from the many books only a few people want as it does from the best sellers. More than half its sales come from books that are not among the top 130,000 titles. One hundred and thirty thousand titles, of course, is in itself far more than the average bookstore can carry. Online music businesses find that their customers burrow deep into the long, long list of available titles. The more they offer, the more the customers burrow.

Chirs Anderson of the online magazine Wired has said: “As (the users) wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought, or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture.”

What does this mean for television? A great deal, potentially. Anderson says “For too long we’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare... Why? Economics. Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching.”

Multiple digital channels might mean more rubbish, but it might also mean a forum for experimental film making, a channel for philosophical discussions, a program aimed at keepers of axolotyls - whatever takes your fancy, really.

So this is the future, but as anyone who has studied the sad and sorry history of Australian broadcasting regulation knows, our politicians have spent many years trying to protect the mass media dependent business models of the existing broadcasting networks. They have done this by holding the future back.

Multichannelling on digital television is banned for commercial broadcasters, and until the end of this year very heavily restricted for the public broadcasters. That means there is very little new content to give consumers the incentive to buy digital television technology.

The result? In the same week Coonan released her plan, other research for the Australian Communications and Media Authority showed that almost a third of Australians still aren’t aware that the analogue television signal will eventually be switched off, and almost a fifth haven’t even heard of digital television. They are far from ready on the starting blocks.

How are they to be moved from this state of ignorance to the point of investing a minimum of $100 per television set so they can receive digital signals?

The good part of Coonan’s package of media reforms is that the ridiculous genre restrictions on the ABC’s digital channel will be lifted, but given that the national broadcaster is starved for funding, it is likely ABC2 will remain largely a means of time-shifting established shows, rather than a platform for exciting new content.

Commercial television channels will be able to run a multichannel from next year, but only in High Definition. Those who want to receive this will have to buy more expensive “home theatre” style technology.

And apart from Channel Seven, which is looking for a back door into pay television, the commercial stations have every reason to discourage the migration of audiences from their main offerings.

What other new services will be available? In the short term, only the much vaunted datacasting services. They are hardly likely to convince Australians into a sprint to digital.

That leaves better picture quality as the main driver of digital uptake - and overwhelmingly, it hasn’t been enough. In fact those who have made the switch to digital soon discover that the networks aren’t putting as much oomph into the digital signal as they should. Reception problems are frequent, even in the inner city.

The date for analogue switch off, originally set at 2008, has already been shifted once already. Some in the industry regard the 2010-2012 date as mere wishful thinking as well.

It isn’t all bad news. Recent ACMA research suggests that about 41 per cent of households can get digital television, either free to air or through a subscription service. This is a significant improvement on last year. But industry figures regard that figure as massively optimistic.

And, given that most households have more than one television, even on the most optimistic estimates only 17 per cent of the televisions in Australian homes are digital capable.

Coonan’s main idea for encouraging uptake of digital technology is a labelling system for new equipment, similar to the energy usage “star” system. This will at least lift consumer awareness, and make them aware that analogue equipment will soon be obsolete.

Coonan has also announced the formation of a new body, Digital Australia, which will taken on the job of educating the Australian public about digital technology.

So where does all this leave us? It is hard to see that any of this will be enough to get us to the point where the analogue signal will be switched off in 2010. The only other option is for the government to go out and buy everyone a free digital set top box - a notion that has been seriously suggested by television retailer Alex Encel, who says the costs involved would be less than those of continuing the present simulcasting of digital and analogue signals.

Meanwhile there are some interesting indicators of the likely future in the ACMA research. It shows that 51.7 per cent of Australian households now have broadband internet access, and 65 per cent of Australians are accessing the internet at least seven times a week. In other words, broadband internet access is almost twice as common as subscription television, and a long way ahead of digital tv.

Over the last 12 months, downloading content from the internet has gone from being something only nerds to being mainstream behaviour. A quarter of the households surveyed for ACMA’s research had downloaded audio-visual content from the web - mostly to computers, but also to mobile phones and iPods.

On the government’s present plan it will be 2009 before significant amounts of new content will be available through digital multichannelling on commercial free to air television.

By then, internet speeds will be faster, and it is likely that most Australian households will have experimented with downloading episodes of their favourite television shows direct from the web.

One possibility is that as the internet offers more and more television like services, it may be that Australia will largely sidestep the whole digital television revolution - and that will mean that the golden age of broadcasting will be well and truly behind us.

Margaret Simons is a freelance journalist and author, presently writing a book about the media for Penguin.


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