One of the really great things about going to conferences is getting the opportunity to ask sticky questions of people who don't have a script to fall back on. I got such a chance at the recent ACMA RadComms08 conference, which this year riffed heavily on the promise of what the government has been calling "the digital dividend" — all that radio spectrum that will be freed up whenever Australia bothers to switch off analogue TV broadcasts.
Among the speakers was Andy Townend, who has been imported from the UK by the Rudd administration to guide Australia into the era of digital television. Being relatively new to his position as head of the government's Digital Switchover Taskforce (DST), he was of course never going to get into heavy detail — but I nonetheless put up my hand to ask the bleeding obvious.
"We now have five years to convince the 58 per cent of Australians that haven't already bothered to get digital TV that they should, now, bother," I said. "But if digital TV is the future, why can I leave this conference today, walk into Harvey Norman and buy a TV without a digital tuner in it? Why doesn't the government save everyone a lot of time and effort and just mandate the inclusion of a digital TV tuner in every TV sold in Australia?"
The broadcast industry guy sitting next to me muttered "I totally agree" before Townend gave his answer. "In the UK, the manufacturers and retailers slowly phased them in," he responded. "It is being left to the industry."
This kind of non-committal claptrap is exactly why the government has gone from a leadership position in digital TV — Australia began broadcasting digital TV on 1 January, 2001 — to a laggard.
By the time we farewell analog TV at the end of 2013, Townend told us, it will already have been gone for seven years in Luxembourg; six years in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria; five years in Germany; four years in the US; two years in France, Japan, Canada and South Africa; and a year in the UK.
Now, Luxembourg, with less than half a million people and just five TV broadcast stations, hardly compares here.
But could someone please explain why Australia, with a population of 21 million and just 104 TV stations, needs four years longer to make the switch than the US, with 300 million served by 2218 stations? Five years longer than Germany, which has 82 million people and 373 TV stations? And two years longer than Japan, which has 127 million people and 211 TV stations? Especially since there is no TV content now broadcast in Australia that is not already available in digital?
Our government is wasting time and money in some misguided effort at consensus building. Australians do not just need digital TV, Townend was saying, they need to need digital TV.
For goodness' sake.
While the DST pays millions to consultants who will advise on branding and pointless education schemes, Joe Bloggs can still walk into his neighbourhood store and buy an analog-only, big-screen TV that requires a separate digital tuner and the technical know-how to make it all work together.
The worst part is that, at the same conference, the guy responsible for the DTA — Senator Stephen Conroy — had the nerve to stand up and claim he is being proactive in harnessing the potential of Australia's radio-frequency spectrum.
If I may quote, briefly, from his speech:
It is therefore no exaggeration to say Australia's future prosperity will be closely linked with our success in harnessing the potential of spectrum to support emerging technologies and applications. Developed economies are already dealing with issues such as spectrum availability, positioning of infrastructure and the development of content...
Over the past 11 years, Australia has been slow to prepare for major spectrum decisions. Well, not any more. The Rudd Government recognises the importance of spectrum and intends to make sure that we maximise the potential benefits for Australian consumers and industry.
I have already lamented the 2013 deadline in an earlier post, but Conroy's vapid speech confirms the utter gulf between words and action.
Just consider something else Townend said: "one of the most important things is working with broadcasters on the timetable," he said. "We have been asked to come back by the end of this year with a timetable for switch off."
Er, don't we already have a timetable? Does it really take eight months to figure this stuff out?
I note that one of the things Townend believes will encourage consumers to go digital — the electronic program guide (EPG) — has been seriously compromised in Australia by networks' refusal to provide online EPG information about anything more than the next one or two shows; Nine's lawsuit against IceTV confirms just how interested the industry is in pushing this stuff forward any faster than they have to.
If the government wants to convince people to make the switch voluntarily, perhaps it should legislate the open provision of programming data so things like the EPGs actually work like they're supposed to. Of course, that would require standing up to the broadcast industry — something the government seems loathe to do.
Instead, we had a new government that scrapped the old government's old digital TV transition plan, then came up with a newer, more expensive one that will take longer to achieve a result that should basically already be in place. Until analog TV is actually shut off, all this talk about the digital dividend is just farting in the wind, if you'll excuse my French.
The irony is that this is the same government that can call an election and expect every adult in Australia to schedule in a specific day to vote with just six weeks' notice or face fines. By the time digital TV is shut off, we will have 13 years to plan for it and many people will be on their third or fourth digital-ready TV.
This procrastinating is worse than you'd cop from a 10-year-old trying to stay up late to watch Underbelly. Might I suggest that the government, which so far has handled the issue with kid gloves, take a chance for once and do what any parent knows is the only way to actually control TV viewing habits: reach over and just pull the plug? A blank screen will be all the motivation the remaining 58 per cent needs to get with the times.
What do you think? Are you still holding onto analog TV? Are there actual reasons you can't go digital? Do we really need five more years of analog?