Monday, 23 April 2007

"Free Ride" begins for NZ Digital TV Viewers

The "free ride" marketing campaign for New Zealand's Freeview service began today, with the launch date for the free-to-air digital satellite service just weeks away.

The switch will be flicked on Freeview NZ on May 2nd. The transition from analogue to digital is being described as "the most significant event in New Zealand broadcasting since the launch of colour television in 1974".

Freeview will offer high quality digital television and radio to viewers all over the country, without the monthly fees and contracts of pay broadcasters like Sky TV. The consortium behind Freeview includes TVNZ, CanWest TVWorks, the Maori Television Service, and Radio NZ.

Because of sporting rights issues (Freeview's satellite footprint isn't confined to New Zealand), Sky-owned broadcaster Prime won't launch on the digital satellite service. However, it's likely to be part of the Digital Terrestrial version of Freeview, launching early next year.

The satellite Freeview service is being targetted at viewers who currently have poor tv reception. The digital satellite service covers 100% of the country, while the Digital Terrestrial version (which requires a UHF aerial) will only cover about 75% of the country (the main metropolitan areas).
Other than an Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) and crisper pictures, Freeview will offer little new for viewers at launch (although TV3 and C4 broadcasts will be in widescreen, and TVNZ are likely to switch their channels to widescreen in August).

State TV are also planning to add a news & current affairs channel (possibly) later this year, and a family/children/arts/drama channel, TVNZ Home, sometime early next year.

CanWest also have some spare spots on the service, but are still deciding what to do with them. Time-shift versions of TVOne/TV2/TV3 (the same schedule, + an hour) are a possibility for the future, following the lead of mainstream broadcasters like the BBC and ITV in the UK.

Regional and niche broadcasters like Alt TV, Triangle TV, Christchurch's CTV, and Invercargill's Cue TV are all believed to be considering a move to one or other of the Freeview networks down the track, once penetration increases. A couple of new niche broadcasters are also understood to be in discussions about launching on the digital platforms.

To receive the digital Freeview service, viewers need a set top dish (or digital TV fitted with a Freeview tuner), and a satellite dish on their roof. Freeview themselves have certified just two brands of Freeview decoders, which will be sold through authorised retailers.

However, some local online retailers and auction websites like Trademe are offering non-certified decoders and dishes for a much cheaper price. Despite what you'll hear through the official channels, most of these do exactly the same job as their more expensive "official" models, with some offering advanced features like programme recording.

The UK's Freeview DTT service (launched five years ago, and offering 30 TV channels and 20 radio channels) is now more popular than Sky over there. Over 8.2 million homes have Freeview on their main tv set, while Sky has just under 8 million subscribers, with another 3 million people subscribing to Cable through Virgin Media (formerly NTL).

The UK's digital success means the analogue switch-off is looming over there. Analogue terrestrial TV signals will begin to be switched off altogether in the Whitehaven region by mid-November.

Sky NZ boss John Fellett is trying to be optimistic, and claims he doesn't expect Sky subscriptions to fall as free-to-air digital services increase.

New Zealand's landscape has always been a challenge for terrestrial tv, which is why Sky digital satellite is a big drawcard in rural areas and other spots with bad reception. With the likes of the Super 14 now proving less of an attraction, viewers might start thinking twice about paying Sky $50-$80 a month for the privilege of their services.

* NZ Herald: Freeview primed for battle with Sky

* Official Freeview NZ website

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