Panel of International Experts Workshop in 2010Mr. Colin Knowles, former head of ABC Technology Strategy and Development, was invited to share his experiences for the planning and implementation of DAB in the International Experts Workshop which was held on 29 Mar to 1 Apr 2010. This article is an excerpt from his speech.
When we started digital television in Australia, digital television only just worked. We set a date of 2001 to be our launch date. Receivers were virtually non-available and the industry went and purchased 1,000 first-generation receivers from Thompson in order to be able to put receivers in the marketplace. The situation today is quite different. At that stage, those basic first-generation receivers cost around about AUS$1,500-3,000, which means it was twice as much as the then-available TV sets, cathode ray tube receivers. Today, you can buy a HD set-top box for between AUS$50-60. You can get one to stick in the side of your laptop for around about the same price.
The thing that changed the market for us was flat panel display. Flat panel display became a very attractive consumer proposition, and probably even more so in Hong Kong with smaller residential spaces. We see the same sort of trend in places like Sydney where people move from very large houses to apartments and you can no longer have a television receiver that is one meter deep because it takes up too much of your room. So, flat panels all of a sudden took off. I recall buying the first 52” flat panel I could get hold of in HD in 1998 and it cost me nearly AUS$60,000, simply so that I had something to demonstrate. Today, I can buy the equivalent for around AUS$1,500. We have seen a big change in display technologies. We have seen a big change in consumer expectations and what they want with things like Blueray DVD, people becoming used to getting good quality images. But, without programming, it is very hard to promote.
In Australia, the government put quite a lot of constraints on the broadcasters in response to objections made by the pay TV industry. The pay TV industry tried to push all the broadcasters into multiplex channel. They knew that if they put them in a multiplex channel, there would be no competition. The broadcasters succeeded in getting a channel each, which allowed them to do HDTV and multi-channel, but the government said “no, you can’t do multi-channel, you have to transmit what’s on your analogue channel on digital and if you transmit anything on HD, you also must show it in SD and in analogue.” Part of the reason was that the Minister of the day took a trip about six months before we were due to launch, and he was going around the world to see whether he could get a receiver that would do HD and SD. And when he went to the various manufacturers, no one could show him one that was actually working. Our original argument was that all receivers should be able to decode everything, irrespective of whether it is HD or SD, and you leave it to the consumers to decide what type of display device they want to install, recognizing that at that moment, HD displays were much more expensive. The situation has now changed; almost every display is actually enabled. If there is a conversion, it is occurring inside the receiver and so we have seen that change.
Programming now has been relaxed. From this year, broadcasters were able to use their HD service independent of their SD service and were able to launch new SD channels. One of our broadcasters, a commercial broadcaster, launched an HD service with a major focus on sport. For example, they got rights for all of the India 2020 cricket games and a range of other sports, some golf games and so forth. They were able to offer almost 24x7 sports that otherwise would not be available – so they’ve got a differentiator there, car racing, Grand Prix and so forth. Some of the other commercials have started, shall we say, niche programming channels. One of them is doing older programs like Seinfeld and Frasier. They have branded them in the youth space and they are attracting a younger audience to them. They started off with virtually no advertising; the advertising now is almost longer than the program because they are getting the viewers in behind it. They are able to broadcast major events now with flexibility, movies, on HD. So it is actually starting to take off and driven by content now that arguments have gone away about the technology.
Once you get the content, then your next big challenge is to be able to tell people where it is. In the early stages, there was a lot of conversation going on that the broadcasters needed to have a common electronic program guide and so the broadcasters spent a huge amount of energy trying to design an electronic program guide, starting off from the multimedia home platform model through to other solutions. While all this was happening, the receiver manufacturers were sitting in their back rooms and almost all of the receivers have two tuners, and certainly all of the personal video recorders. So, when you looked at the program guide on most of these receivers, you pressed the guide button, the receiver already knows what channels are available in your area, it goes and collects all the electronic program guide material from the channels very quickly and in five or 10 seconds after you asked for it, there is a comprehensive guide of every channel on your television set. From the perspective of my previous job at the ABC, that was a really good outcome. Otherwise, I was confronted with having to transmit the EPGs for 200 different transmitters across the country, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because I’ve now got to decide where the viewer is and what channels they watch – the receiver knows that. But, being able to easily access those programs has been the key with pay TV and I think it is also the key with free-to-air television.
It’s a challenge, but I think the challenges are dissipating (converting people across) because the world has become more digitalized. In Hong Kong, you’ve got the advantage of the experience that people like the BBC and ABC have had in the conversion process. I think the Freeview model has been useful because it put a common marketing image around it; if you talk about DAB, exactly the same thing. A common perspective around marketing the product and branding it so that you don’t have the confusion between retailers and manufacturers and broadcasters. People know what the product is and Freeview has been marketed as providing 14 or 15 channels of free-to-air television now. We had to back off that a little bit because it was not technically correct at the time because you couldn’t count 15 channels, but in time it will be. The common marketing approach is really important for promoting digital.
Former head of ABC Technology Strategy and Development