The Save TVNZ 7 campaign moves into top gear this week – New Zealand loses another public service channel - and Freeview has a rough road ahead.

New Zealand viewers have just lost access to another public service television broadcaster – and most of us didn’t know we had it. It’s SBS, the public service broadcaster established to meet the needs of Australia’s ethnic minorities – a very supercharged model for our own late, lamented Stratos channel.

Freeview satellite service viewers could tune into SBS with a very minor modification to their rooftop dish, because the Australian channel was using the same satellite that serves New Zealand to reach its viewers in Tasmania.

SBS delivers a solid range of international and Australian news, current affairs, and documentary programmes, European films and drama, and top-flight sports events such as Giro d'Italia cycling, the World Superbike Championships and the UEFA Champions League soccer final.

Over at www.extra-channels.com  , blogger Matty T came up with a bright suggestion: why not negotiate a formal swop deal between the Maori Television Service and SBS? That would enrich the public service broadcasting outputs of both countries.

Unfortunately, the opportunity vanished, almost as quickly as it was identified. The Optus D1 satellite is no longer delivering SBS to New Zealand. There’s some speculation that a Kiwi broadcaster could have nobbled the SBS fruit fly, but SBS was scheduled to switch its Tasmanian transmission to another satellite early next year anyway. That’s thanks to their government’s investment in Viewer Access Satellite Transmission and a new boost to the SBS budget which was already bigger than our Government’s total spend on public broadcasting services. Their gain – our loss.

SBS would certainly have enriched the programme offering from Freeview. Family-friendly, non-commercial TVNZ 6 is gone, Stratos is gone, TVNZ 7 is scheduled to go at the end of next month, to be replaced by TV One + 1, which is about half a step up the interest scale from TVNZ’s other bright option – the non-stop Shopping Channel which has found its home on the SKY Television menu.

Freeview has gained two new channels – Choice (another life-style offering) and Freeview’s third China-focused channel. However, both new channels are only available to the minority of households equipped for Freeview HD digital terrestrial reception, not to the majority who’ve opted for the Freeview satellite service.

Right now, SKY has Freeview nailed in terms of the diversity of choice offered to viewers. Only 11 of the 23 channels carried by Freeview are available on both its satellite and terrestrial services. All 11 are carried by SKY and two of the 11 are the same channel, running an hour later (ONE+1 and TV3+1). Nine Freeview channels are only available to its terrestrial service users - eight of them are only available in particular parts of New Zealand, while the other (Trackside) is also available on SKY. Three are only available on Freeview’s satellite service, and all three [Cue, Shine and Te Reo)are also carried by SKY.

Freeview lacks a strong and distinctive core to its offering to capture and hold a lead over its pay-to-view rival SKY Television. That’s something that an exclusive public service channel could have provided.

SKY has already pulled about half the television-owning households of New Zealand into its subscription base and 20% of the homes converted to Freeview also have access to the Sky. Effectively, we have reached the point where pay-to-view broadcast television could become the dominant form of media in the country. If that happens, one of the principle foundations of public broadcasting service – broadest, possible accessibility – will be destroyed.

Commercial TV broadcasters are not incentivized to grow the Freeview audience. There is already too much competition for the free-to-air broadcast advertising dollar. The new growth opportunity is in monetizing the supply of programme content to viewers. They can’t do that on Freeview, but they can on SKY, as TVNZ Is showing.

SKY is already the profit leader of the television media. It’s keeping  its pedal to the metal in its quest for more subscribers. In two months’ time it will add up to eight special Olympics channels to its offering. Around the same time, it will launch its new, low cost pay-to-view service Igloo – with or without its new best friend, TVNZ. It is creeping up its subscription price to ensure there will be a margin when low-rent viewers switch to its lower price Igloo service.

Meantime, there are some serious questions that need to be answered in next week’s budget about the long-term sustainability of the Freeview system. Freeview is a collective operated by a group of free-to-air television broadcasters who spend most of their time competing vigorously for advertising revenue.

Freeview’s  birth in 2007 was assisted with a hefty dollop of government assistance – a five-year holiday on spectrum access fees for free-to-air digital television broadcasters and a five year operating subsidy of $5 million a year for the Freeview organisation. The five years are up.

The Freeview operating subsidy was quietly extended for another two years in last year’s budget, but there has been an ominous silence on the arrangements for spectrum fees. It will take superb sales job to make another sweetheart deal for commercial broadcasters over spectrum fees palatable to the public after the fuss caused by the time-payment concessions granted to MediaWorks in 2010. Maybe that’s why Mediaworks is talking about early repayment of its $43 million radio licence fee loan.

Public discontent with the increased commercialization of TVNZ s and free-to-air TV in general is evident in the sudden growth of support for the Save TVNZ 7 campaign. Organisers report that they now have close to 20,000 signatories to their protest petition. This week, they initiate a series of public meetings in six cities around the country. For venue details, check the campaign website - http://issues.co.nz/savetvnz7

Policy-makers need to think hard about the current vulnerability of Freeview, because its failure to gain and hold a lead in the contest for viewers after the digital switch will create a dangerous division between those able to afford access to a diverse range of broadcast media and those who cannot. A growing information gap on top of a serious income gap could be a step too far for New Zealanders.

Comments (8)

by Chris de Lisle on May 13, 2012
Chris de Lisle

I don't own a TV, so I'm really not invested in this debate.

But, I am curious about the extent of this information gap. What evidence is there that low income families don't themselves have Sky? If it is decisively beating Freeview in terms of uptake, then that suggests to me that low income families are finding the money for Sky and chosing it over Freeview. How, then, will an information gap form?

by David Beatson on May 14, 2012
David Beatson

Chris - The Government has already identified a group that will need assistance to switch to digital television: people aged 75 and over with a Community Services Card; recipients of a Veteran’s Pension or Invalids’ Benefit; and former Veteran’s Pension and Invalid’s Benefit recipients who transferred to NZ Superannuation at age 65 or over. They will be assisted with a Freeview package. I believe there is a substantial number of other New Zealanders who are not able to afford the monthly subscription to access the substantially richer television diet available from SKY. To date, around 50% of New Zealand households are tuned to SKY, and 20% our households have both SKY and Freeview. That means, around 30% of households are limited to the restricted information diet provided by our major commercial free-to-air television broadcasters on the Freeview platform. The potential for an information gap looks pretty obvious to me.   

by Matthew Thredgold on May 14, 2012
Matthew Thredgold

MattyT here from extra-channels.com.

David, I don't think the window of opportunity for New Zealand to adopt SBS has necessarily gone just because the signals have disappeared off the Optus D1 satellite. They could just as easily be put back. Perhaps with a change in government adopting SBS on Freeview is one option that could be explored for providing New Zealand with some quality public broadcasting, something we do badly need with the imminent demise of TVNZ7.

Thanks for the traffic and I invite other readers to my blog. Not only is NZ Freeview a poor relation to Australian Freeview because of the number of public broadcasting channels from both the ABC and SBS, but Sky is also not a shade on the Austar or Foxtel services. However there are other options for getting something on the box, and that is what extra-channels.com is about.

by David Beatson on May 14, 2012
David Beatson

Thanks for the steer Matty. The capacity for negotiating a swop hasn't gone - just the opportunity to mod your dish to pull SBS down from the Optus D1 satellite. Sorry for the confusion caused by a piece of bad structuring on my part.  

by Jackal on May 15, 2012
Jackal

I'm not too sure what this mod was to be able to receive SBS, as I didn't have to make any adjustments apart from searching available channels. People also lost another two channels when they pulled Stratos Television... so once TVNZ7 goes, that will be six or 1/3 of the New Zealand freeview channels gone.

Many people purchased their systems just before they announced the closures, and had an expectation to be able to use the services outlined for a reasonable amount of time. The largely badly announced closures perhaps make those sales in breach of the Consumer Guarantees Act, being that the devices were sold under false pretext.

by David Beatson on May 15, 2012
David Beatson

The latest from Save TVNZ7 is that more than 22,000 have signed the petition to date.

by DeepRed on May 18, 2012
DeepRed

To help lighten the mood, my SKYNET T-shirt designs are now on sale.

by Andrew Jones on June 29, 2012
Andrew Jones

David, I asked the Minister of Broadcasting, Craig Foss, about the idea of a formal swap between the SBS channels and Maori channels. He expressed some interest which seemed to leave open the door if there was sufficient public demand. He then wrote "I am not aware of any demand for this in NZ or Australia. Such a proposal would need to be considered within the wider context of inter-governmental discussions around NZ's CER agreement with Australia, and would need to take into account the regulatory environment regarding the production and broadcst of local content." It could be achieved at little or no cost to the taxpayer and would be the form of public service TV not completely ruled out by the government.. I suggest emailing relevant MPs such as Craig Foss, John Key, David Shearer, Clare Curran, Peter Dunne, Russel Norman. SBS  offers a superb range of international programming.

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