Tuning out, turning off
The government's closing down of the nation's entire analogue TV signal transmissions (so the frequencies can be flicked off) has been sold on the basis of "better". Freeview - the government-backed system of digital transmission - has more channels than analogue (but not many more) and a higher quality reception (but prone to 'rain fade' and cutting out entirely). But viewers are facing losses with this transition.
The first loss is the money cost of having to abandon old sets and having to buy new sets or boxes (more on this below), the other main loss is of convenience: taking a set anywhere and plugging in the 'rabbit ears' will no longer be possible. The gains of programme data from the remote control and the better picture are an offset, but we are still losing something here that cannot be regained. For example, imagine if they tried this with radio - making every radio set defunct and forcing people to buy a box for it? Unacceptable, pointless, expensive? And yet this is what has been done to TV without any protest.
How much better, exactly?
When Freeview came out TVNZ - under the National government - put its archive material, its heritage funded by years of the TV licence fee - into a channel only available on Sky. Privatised - behind someone else's pay wall. This is a disgrace, but we are in for more of the same. Drinnan in the NZ Herald:
The Government is looking at taxpayer subsidies for some late-adopters to get Sky's Igloo set-top boxes after old analogue TV signals are switched off.
The move is aimed at easing the transition to digital transmission, but would fit with Government policies that promote pay TV and undermine Freeview and the free-to-air TV sector.
From September next year to December 2013, analogue TV signals will be switched off region by region, the West Coast first and Auckland last.
After switch-off, viewers will need tuners inside TV sets, a set-top box or a personal video recorder to pick up free-to-air channels.
The plan comes as TVNZ moves to close public service channel TVNZ 7 and lease it out as a shopping channel.
Igloo is 51 per cent owned by Sky and 49 per cent by TVNZ and has been launched to coincide with the digital switchover and pick up lower spending customers.
A shroud of secrecy makes some sense as news of a subsidy might encourage people to delay buying a digital tuner under their own steam.
But it has wider implications if the Government selects Igloo - and access to pay TV - over Freeview, which offers solely free-to-air content.
The tender for the Targeted Assistance Plan invited expression of interest in providing 50,000 to 60,000 tuners.
Details of the Igloo scheme were released last week. It will provide 11 pay channels for $25 a month on a set-top box costing less than $200.
A half-pie, half-way house for people with only half the money for Sky. It makes perfect sense for Sky, as it will drag some over after the half-strength taste of this platform to the basic Sky package and pre-empts other rivals, but what is TVNZ playing at? Grabbing any form of government funding for itself is always high on their agenda; public broadcasting seems to have fallen off the bottom of the page.
Also on the horizon, next year, will be the regulatory framework to keep up with the merging of technology.
When someone with a remote sitting in their living room can flick seemlessly between internet, TV and radio (and anyone with a modern mobile phone can do the same anywhere) it seems less and less tenable that the different modes of communication have their own bodies and rules. While an argument exists that government's allocating frequencies has given them responsibilities over what is broadcast the same argument can be turned to the internet where the government is now subsidising the ultra-fast broadband roll-out.
Some amalgamation is coming, but the fear is that in trying to align everything the internet and (to a lesser extent) the press will have their censorship and enforcement increased to the more restrictive levels of the BSA (rather than broadcasters having reduced restrictions).
That’s the way I look at the recommendation - not as a statutory super-regulator, but as a slightly refined self-regulatory initiative, in which the industry is given a first chance to see whether they can do this themselves.
Complaints would still go in the first instance to the publisher or broadcaster, and would only be referred to the regulator in the event they can’t be resolved.
The Commission doesn’t discuss fast-track resolution, or interim take-down powers, or a possible Ombudsman/mediator to faciliate resolution before complaints are elevated, but all are on the table for the regulator.