Digital TV: back to the future?

What a difference a decade makes.
Written by David Braue, Contributor
Digital TV

What a difference a decade makes.

Doing some much-needed sorting recently, I found a Bulletin magazine with a cover date of February 10, 1998 -- exactly ten years ago this week.

The fact that the Bulletin no longer exists was curious enough, as was rereading my story about a new fad called Internet shopping -- including statements like "commercial Australian Web sites are now seriously testing the waters of online shopping" and references to "Amazon.com, a US-based online bookstore with almost a million customers."

This particular issue, however, caught my attention because of the cover story on digital television. "Coming: pictures that leap off the screen," ran the headline, with two models sitting enthusiastically in front of a life-sized shot from then current-release blockbuster Titanic.

Rather than focusing on the wow factor, the writer voiced concerns about digital TV turf wars among government, media owners, Internet service providers and others. Pay TV operators feared that free-to-air (FTA) channels would use digital TV's more efficient spectrum usage to broaden their offerings. Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying that "no one I know has a proven business plan that will generate one extra dime to help pay for all the expense [of the transition]."

Ten years later, digital TV is in around a third of Australian households, and Seven and Ten each offer high definition-only channels. Big-screen TVs are the order of the day, with the latest 1080p-capable units promising mind-blowing TV through services such as HD+, which Foxtel announced last week (ironic given the 1998 Bulletin story's quoting of then-chief executive Tom Mockridge as calling HDTV "a red herring.")

With pay operators luring viewers away from FTA, digital TV has become key to survival for the old operators; new HD channels and additional standard-definition channels will give us 15 FTA digital channels by 2009).

What I'd like to point out is the utter lack of urgency on this whole issue by the newly elected government.

In the leadup to last year's election, I interviewed Senator Helen Coonan on this topic. Among other actions, her tenure had seen the late-2006 creation of Digital Australia, a government body dedicated to co-ordinating stakeholders and educating consumers about digital TV.

Funded at AU$17m over four years, it was a concrete effort to finally bring about the end of analogue. I wouldn't have bet against an eventual subsidy program like that operating in the US, where residents are eligible for two US$40 coupons towards the price of digital boxes.

Senator Conroy declined repeated invitations to counter Senator Coonan's comments last year -- one of which, interestingly enough, was that Labor had been "totally absent in this space". I couldn't tell you what my opposition says about one iota of broadcasting; [Conroy] has never said anything at all, apart from that he's going to abolish Digital Australia."

True to his (and her) word, Digital Australia is no more. Senator Conroy moved quickly to appoint his own committee -- known as the Digital Switchover Taskforce (DST) -- to waste even more time considering options on ways in which it may be possible to eventually direct a well-considered policy for managing the seemingly critical rollout of what will, once the plan for its rollout is considered, become a critically important part of the esteemed Senator's plans to more effectively consider appropriate policy directions in this highly essential area of government telecommunications policy.

Pardon me. I seem to have lapsed into government-speak, saying much without actually saying anything. That's kind of what Conroy seems to be doing, as well: Rather than continuing whatever momentum the Coalition built, he is starting from the beginning again. One of his first actions was to delay the planned metropolitan switchover by a year, and to push the full cutoff back to 2013 -- fully five years after initial government estimates, and around two years later than Coonan was planning.

This, in Conroy's words, is to help an industry that he says "has been unable to plan effectively for digital television". Now, answer me this: ten years ago, the Bulletin was already lamenting the lack of government action on digital TV. A decade later, despite repeated efforts, we're still seeing deadlines pushed back again and again -- despite the fact that all FTA networks are all already broadcasting in digital TV and will be doing even more such broadcasting next year.

Perhaps it is actually the government that has been unable to plan effectively for digital television. Which begs the question, why?

Could it be that the 2013 deadline has been set six years after the last election to ensure the switchover doesn't become a contentious political issue until after Labor is safely into its third term? Given that we've all seen digital TV coming for half a generation, shouldn't we all be well past discussing the planning stages? Could we please just get on with it?

The technology is there; the willpower is there. What do you think is holding up the digital TV switchover? Do you really care about digital TV anyway? Will IPTV, PVRs and mobile video make the discussion irrelevant in the end?

Editorial standards