Friday, 9 June 2006

Is NZ being left behind in the Digital Era?

There was an interesting story on State TV's Close Up at 7 programme tonight, on the future of the humble tv...

Titled "Is Television Dead?", reporter Bryan Seymour looked at whether the internet could be sounding the death knell for regular free-to-air television.

He spoke to a couple of (anonymous) people who download tv shows over the internet, through bit torrent systems. Friends download different shows, and swap cds/dvds between each other. They acknowledge what they're doing is technically illegal... downloading the latest episodes of popular US shows like Lost, Nip/Tuck, and the latest hit Prison Break (yet to screen in New Zealand, but advertised as "Coming Soon" on TV3).

It's hard to criticise their actions... While a handful of shows screen on New Zealand television within a month or so of their American broadcasts, many others sit on the shelf for 6 months to a year or more... Others never even make it onto our screens. For many people, the frustration of waiting to see what other viewers are talking about online is just too much.

For some fans, it's the only way to see a cable or "cult" tv show. One example mentioned recently in a local tv magazine was sci-fi showThe Dead Zone. Based on the Stephen King book/movie of the same name, Series One of the USA Network show played here on Prime TV, but the network said it had no plans to buy any more. The show's now into its 5th season in the United States.

Kiwis currently have no legal option for downloading tv programmes. While American surfers can now pay to legally download a selection of tv shows and movies through sites like itunes, no such service exists here. Indeed, New Zealand is becoming one of the few non-third-world countries where Apple's popular music and video download store iTunes still hasn't been launched.

IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) is the other growth area, offering streamed tv programming directly over the net. Even the overseas networks themselves are starting to get in the action, launching their own Broadband TV channels.

(* See my earlier post: Broadband TV is here! for more info)

The other way to see a broader range of programming is through pay television. New Zealand has pay tv courtesy of Sky Television via digital satellite and a limited UHF service. (Telstra Clear offer cable television, but this service is operated through Sky and has a similar lineup).

Sky's offering is massively overpriced, has an extremely limited lineup, few package options, and poor quality picture (you can often get a noticeably better picture through a clear VHF channel signal, than from the same digitally-compressed channel on Sky Digital). For some reason though, around 40% of NZ households subscribe!
Sky NZ's interactive tv guide is slow and clunky (partly because they chose to upgrade the tv guide software, without upgrading the set-top boxes its running on). The company are pushing their "My Sky" interactive 'personal video recorder'. It's integrated with a tv guide, and lets you record up to 60 hours of television onto its hard drive. It's not as intelligent as the popular US service Tivo... You can't skip through adverts (although you can fast forward like on a video recorder), and it costs $600 to install, although the box is still actually owned by Sky.

The basic "Start Up" Sky package costs $46.61 a month and gives you just 30 TV channels (including the free-to-air State TV and CanWest Mediaworks ones). Adding the 3 Sports and 4 Movie channels (as many households do) will take the monthly Sky bill to a whopping $80.38! For just 36 channels?!

Compare that to Sky UK... Choosing all 6 Channel categories (Variety, Kids, Knowledge, Style & Culture, Music and News & Events) on its digital satellite service will give you over 260 channels, and cost £21.00 a month (~ $61.70 NZ). (You can choose to have fewer categories... £15.00 (~ $44.11 NZ) will still give you well over 200 channels... or choose to add extra Movie, Sports, and Premium subscription channels).
For UK viewers unwilling to pay a monthly subscription just to watch telly, there's a couple of "free" options. After buying a special digital satellite set-top box, you can view 120 free TV channels through Sky's freesat service... or 34 free channels through the more common Freeview service, pushed by the BBC.

Here in New Zealand, firm plans for the future of television, and a digital changeover date have yet to be announced. The former National Government were working on a digital tv proposal with UK cable company NTL as far back as 1999, but those plans were ditched at a cost of millions when Helen Clark's Labour Party took power.

The Government's now working with local free to air broadcasters on a Freeview service based on the British system (albeit one with far less channels ;-) A final decision is expected within the next month or two.

It's possible it may be broadcast on both Digital Satellite (TVNZ and CanWest have agreed a 15-year leasing deal on the new Optus D1 satellite) and through Digital Terrestrial (DTT - the modern version of the current transmitter/aerial setup).

* Close Up: Is television dead?
* Aardvark: The changing face of ISPs
* Wikipedia: IPTV

UPDATE: According to MediaCom's Marketing Digest newsletter out today, the Government will be announcing its intentions on free-to-air digital television next Thursday (15th June).

They point out how far behind New Zealand is... "The world is going digital -- analogue television has already been switched off in Berlin, the UK will close down in 2012, the US a couple of years later. Just last month, for the first time more British viewers watched free-to-air digital television than watched via analogue".

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