Television broadcasting in Australia is a joke right now.
There, I said it. It is now 2012, and still, we have only one dedicated high-definition channel - and that is the simulcasting SBS HD. For a country that likes to think of itself as an advanced, finger-on-the-pulse technological adopter, this is simply not good enough.
I’m astonished at the apparent lack of desire to have this rectified. By no means do I think of myself as someone privy to all the ins and outs of the ‘Freeview’ initiative. Having said that, I struggle to comprehend what possible reason the government had for demanding each network have just one high-definition channel. The digital rollout has just passed its halfway mark - the process in its entirety has been marked to take four years, and not finish until late 2013! At this rate, it would not surprise me if further free-to-air broadcasting advancements were made long before we even have high-definition broadcasting as the de facto standard, essentially putting us one generation behind.
I dare say it is fair to assume that the vast majority of Australians have either a native HDTV, or a set top box on an older television. With this in mind, the issue is even more mystifying. Certified televisions and receivers that only output at a standard definition are able to downgrade the broadcast to the relevant resolution, as seen most successfully when the transition was made throughout Europe (backstory here); clearly, even those without the high-definition sets would not be restricted in their viewing. Given the extremely low cost of purchasing a set top box, or even a digital-ready SDTV, it is surely time to accelerate the schedule and complete it well in advance.
The blame lies equally with the networks, however. Each has one designated HD channel - the aforementioned SBS HD, 7mate, Gem and One have been nominated by their respective networks as this channel. There are two issues with the networks’ attitudes towards these channels: The “high-definition” broadcasting that was initially on this channel was limited to very few programs, and then replaced within six months of its inception. These channels have since become channels that simply fill time with re-runs of the following television “icons” - As Time Goes By, Antiques Roadshow, That 70’s Show, Yes, Minister, MASH, Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart. Unfortunately, until there is a paradigm shift in the thinking of network executives, we are likely to suffer the same vitriol for years on end.
It doesn’t end there, either. Even Foxtel, which is not bound by the same regulations as Freeview participants, is severely lacking in high-definition content. Given the excruciating and substantial increase in the number of advertisements shown, and sustainable growth in subscriptions, Foxtel can seemingly afford high-definition content more than free-to-air networks; and yet, over all of its channels and packages, only 20 are available in high definition. 7 of these are sports channels, and a further 6 are movie channels, each of which are outside the basic package; this leaves a paltry 6 standard subscription channels broadcast in high definition. Once again, these channels often show old content that isn’t filmed in high definition, and these channels are only available with the premium Foxtel iQHD unit - each of these are significant barriers in reaching an ubiquitous state of high definition broadcasting.
People have often used piracy as a means of watching the latest and greatest shows when networks refuse to air them. As we fall further and further behind in our broadcasting, however, it would come as no surprise if people begin pirating simply to enjoy their home theatre setups. We are now starting to see the fruits of the National Broadband Network, and this will only serve to increase the ease and convenience of piracy, with faster speeds, bigger download plans, cheaper prices and more extensive service availability.
So what can be done to append the awful state our broadcasting industry is in? Unfortunately, it appears very little. Despite the recent success seen in the R18 ratings saga, ‘people power’ seems too insignificant to force legislative change, at least in its current state, and the networks themselves seem all too happy to play along in order to save a few dollars. Given the ease at which people can access high definition content, it may end up costing them a lot more.
By Tom Hughes
What do you think of current broadcasting standards? Know something about the industry we don’t? Let us know in the comments below!