Great Digital Switch-On could be a Great Switch-Off for Regional TV

Our broadcasting bureaucrats are herding regional television broadcasters into using digital terrestrial transmission services. Unfortunately, the folks at home aren’t following their lead.

On the surface, New Zealand’s transition to digital TV broadcasting is going well. 83% of our homes with television have made the conversion -  and we are still six months out from the date when the first of our regions says “Good Night Kiwi” to the old, spectrum-hungry era of analogue transmission.

Scratch beneath the surface and you find a black hole that no-one wants to talk about – the hole into which our broadcasting policy-makers are about to drop our small regional television channels.

The regional TV broadcasters have been encouraged to use digital terrestrial transmission [DTT] to deliver their programmes to their regional audiences.

The problem they are about to encounter is the low take-up rate for DTT reception by home viewers throughout the country.

You can get a rough handle on the size of this hole from surveys conducted for the State-funded tracking agency GoingDigital.

The latest GoingDigital survey tells us that 50% of our digital-ready homes only receive their TV via pay-to-view service from the SKY satellite or the smaller Telstra Clear cable system. 30% are tuned in only to the free-to-air Freeview system. And 20% receive digital TV services from both sources.

Effectively, 50% of our digital ready households are now equipped to receive Freeview. That’s about 675,000 households.

What the survey does not tell us is precisely how many homes are equipped to receive a free-to-air digital terrestrial transmission [DTT] service.

A lot of digital-ready households simply do not know whether their Freeview TV service comes to them from a satellite or a terrestrial transmitter. GoingDigital tries to determine DTT penetration by asking these householders if they receive Freeview through a dish [satellite] or through an aerial [digital terrestrial]. Their responses indicate that 42% of digital-ready homes are equipped to receive a free-to-air DTT broadcast from a regional channel.

The current, well-established trend suggests that when the great digital switch-on[DSO] is completed in November next year, a grand total of just 284,000 households - around 17.4 % of the total - scattered across the whole of New Zealand could be equipped to see a free-to-air DTT broadcast from a regional channel.

There are about 20 regional TV channels aroundNew Zealand. Because they are a very diverse group of operators it is difficult to track their progress towards digital transmission.

Cue TV[Invercargill] has established itself nationwide on the SKY and Freeview satellite platforms. Stratos achieved nationwide satellite delivery for programmes fromAuckland’s Triangle Television – but it failed last Christmas because of the heavy transmission and distribution costs involved and its inability to attract adequate support from advertisers and sponsors in a recessed economy.

TV Central [Waikato-Bay of Plenty] and Northland TV [Whangarei] are using DTT transmission to reach their target regions. So is the Auckland-based Chinese community broadcaster TV33.

Seven regional channels – including three in Christchurch, and one each in Dunedin, Rotorua, Hawkes Bay and Taupo – have purchased spectrum that would allow them to mount stand-alone DTT systems outside the Freeview framework. Tararua TV [Manawatu] is also reported to be looking at this option.

Mainland Television [Nelson] has signaled its intent to move to DTT, but there will be no DTT coverage in their neighbouringMarlboroughregion.

Three regional TV broadcasters – Te Hiku [Kaitaia], 45 South [Oamaru], and ITV [Queenstown] are completely outside the DTT coverage zone. They may be allowed to continue with their existing analogue transmitters until they [or their audience] rust out, or they may receive a small grant to help them switch to broadband, internet delivery.

So far, only one regional TV channel has qualified for the one-off Government digital transition assistance grant of $70,000 from NZ On Air – and the NZOA board will be considering any other applications at its meeting this month.

The criteria for receiving this very limited assistance – compared to the $79 million wasted in the creation and dissolution of the non-commercial digital “teaser” channels TVNZ 6 and TVNZ 7 – was shaped in such a way that only 10 of the 20 regional channels could qualify for it.

Officials estimate that the total potential DSO transition funding for regional TV broadcasters will amount to no more than $850,000 – compared to the $2.1 million that was originally set aside for this purpose in 2009. Then, the new National Cabinet noted that “regional broadcasters have an important role to play in supporting their communities, and producing local and diverse content which complements the broad appeal programming provided by national broadcasters.”

Since then, the officials have been busy herding the regional TV broadcasters into the digital terrestrial transmission system. Unfortunately, the home audiences haven’t been following their lead. With just 17.4% of New Zealand’s TV households turned on to DTT, it looks like the great digital switch on is going to turn into the great DTT switch-off for regional television broadcasters.

Disclosure of interest: David Beatson has written submissions on the digital assistance policy for the Regional Television Broadcasters Association and hosts a weeky programme on Triangle Television in Auckland.