What happened to high-definition TV in Australia?

Opinion. Australia is in the middle of a forced switch to free-to-air digital TV. After years of broadcasting both analogue and digital signals, the analogue network is progressively being decommissioned. Many regional and country areas have already converted. The capital cities are due for the switch in late 2013. The government has been broadcasting ads to tell everyone about the switch. For most it will be a non-event as many of us have already moved to digital set top boxes, PVRs or screens with built-in digital tuners.

Much fuss has been made by the TV industry about the new digital channels. They have even set up a joint marketing campaign to promote digital free to air over pay TV – called FreeView. So everyone knows about the new digital channels. But less well known is the price we have paid for these new channels – a total elimination of high-definition (HD) content.

Digital TV was heralded to bring sharper pictures, better sound and more channels over free-to-air wireless transmissions. The widescreen 16:9 format was the most obvious change; less well known was Digital TV’s ability to support a new generation quality of picture and sound – called high definition. In Australia, this meant up to 5 times as many dots and support for 5.1 digital surround audio – even better than DVD. Done properly, a live HD sports broadcast looks and sounds like you are at the event. You can hear people clapping and cheering as if they are sitting right behind you…

For a while, it all looked very promising and things went pretty well. Initially the adoption of digital set top boxes was slow (due to the price) but the advent of built in HD digital tuners in Plasmas and LCD screens quickly made digital TV mainstream.

New rules allowed the free-to-air broadcasters to setup one HD channel each and they started simulcasting their primary channels on it. Sport and movies started being shown in HD. Those with the correct setup could experience the benefits the extra pixels and 5.1 audio brought. Watching AFL or the US Masters Golf in HD is something to behold.

Then in a bold move, Ten launched OneHD – a dedicated HD channel with a focus on sport – including AFL, NBL, NFL, Formula 1 and the Golf majors. Due to the government rules, to do it Ten  had to cannibalise their existing TenHD channel so HD drama on Ten (think House, Lost etc) came to an abrupt end. Given the lack of HD content outside sport, it seemed like a reasonable compromise by Ten management. In the meantime Nine started showing the NRL in HD (and even did a test 3D NRL broadcast) and 7 finally started showing the AFL in HD. Nine even showed the Cricket in HD for a season.

Due to the unexpected success of OneHD, the other commercial channels followed, Seven converted 7HD to 7mate and Nine converted NineHD to Gem. The difference this time though was that these were brand new channels with their own content and no longer dedicated to broadcasting HD content. Both Seven and Nine promised to show HD sports on their respective HD channels – but it was a promise they quickly broke. Then the national broadcaster decided to drop ABCHD and replace it with a 24 hour news station – no more HD content from the national broadcaster. All of a sudden the only source of HD content was the original One HD channel.

In May this year the unthinkable happened. OneHD quietly became One, lost its focus on HD sport and became a “general content” channel. New management headed by Lachlan Murdoch (yes those Murdochs who brought us such high quality stations like Fox 8 and Fox News) figured playing more US crap series and replays of “24” would bring back the viewers. Hmmm, I dunno Lachlan.

So now we have no dedicated free-to-air HD channels and no HD content.  Worse, the HD bandwidth is being wasted with crap re-runs of “Bewitched”, “I Love Lucy” and (get this!) black and white movies from the 1950’s. Check out the TV guide and just look what 7mate and Gem are playing on any given night.

In short, we have all been duped by our government  and the free-to-air broadcasters. Australian consumers  have been conned into purchasing  expensive LCD/Plasma “Full HD” screens with heaps of pixels and support for HD content (with its extra resolution and 5.1 digital audio) only to find, a few short years later, that no channels are actually broadcasting content that can take advantage of the technology.  We may as well have all stayed with our old CRT sets and built in stereo speakers.

More disappointing is that no one seems to care! Maybe so few people have their TVs setup correctly to show HD content that they do not understand what they are missing. They all rush out to buy the latest LED Plasma but use the inbuilt speakers and watch standard definition broadcasts. More than once I have reconfigured friends’ configuration to show HD content after years of them watching SD content and not knowing there was anything wrong. In one instance the cable installer had incorrectly configured the HD cable set-top box. Seriously, what hope do we have if a professional cable installer doesn’t know how to configure the set top box to output HD content to a HD screen over HDMI?

Why did the government let the broadcasters create more channels only to show more US crap and repeats from the 1970s just so they can show even more (really bad quality) ads? Did the Australian public really need that? How did they let the national broadcaster (owned by the people) nobble their own HD channel to show a crappy 24 hours news service with upscaled SD content? Why can’t we watch our sport AFL/NRL/Rugby/Cricket in high-definition any more? Why must we instead put up with re-runs of “I Love Lucy” or Bewitched in “HD” on Gem? Who decided this?

The Federal Government has set rules for the amount of HD format programming the commercial channels must show. Since 2003, each must show at least 1,040 per year or about 3 hours per day. The problem is the looseness of the term “High definition”. In Australia, the broadcasters consider the 576p high definition. But this is essentially no more resolution than the traditional analogue signal. A more common trick is to “upscale” (convert) standard definition or  480p “high definition” content from the US  to the Australian HD standard of 1080i and call it HD. Its a bit like zooming a digital photo. The dots get bigger but the picture does not gain any more clarity – indeed the act of upscaling can even introduce more noise and digital artefacts.

I want to see the government reinstate the minimum HD content rules and enforce them properly. We need to legislate what HD means – to explicitly exclude upscaled content. Repeats of US crap like “24” or “Cops adult only” should not count either. The national broadcaster should be forced to reinstate their HD content. Hey let them lead the way and move the primary ABC1 channel to HD only. Its easy just swap News24 and ABC1.  Ban the sale of SD only tuners.

The sellers of TV rights should have more say too. For example, the AFL and NRL should insist its games are always shown in HD. That would force the broadcasters to use their HD channels for HD content. Why not? The AFL and NRL  would never consider selling rights to a black and white only broadcaster so why do they allow the broadcasters to short-change their fans with standard definition broadcasts of their games?

Digital TV still holds great promise, but if we continue down the current path I fear the next generation of viewers will continue leaving broadcast TV in droves and instead get their entertainment from their iPads or Youtube – both of which support HD content. Ratings will drop and the only people watching free-to-air will be the over 60s – who still believe ACA is really a current affairs program. Today my 11-year old son informed me he was, like, so bored he had to watch TV. Hmm…. maybe its already happened.

13 comments to What happened to high-definition TV in Australia?

  • Phil

    Good on you mate. Nice to see that at least someone cares about the crap state of HDTV in Australia. I really fear the worst because, as you say, no one seems to care.

  • Paul

    Up until recently I have been watching “HD” TV on an analogue plasma, using an SD set top box to get “freeview”. Now that I actually have a whizzbang HD TV I can really appreciate just how bad the broadcasting issue in this country is! Not just content, but quality!! It’s amazing how crappy the supposed HD TV broadcasts in Australia look on a 64 inch HD plasma! Ridiculous!! Why are we not utilising REAL HD more readily?? The 1080i broadcasts that I have watched recently have blown me away, yet 99% of what we’re stuck with in this country is below 500p! Thank God the predominant reason for my recent TV purchase was for blu-ray movies / games! TV in this country is dead!

  • Big V

    If you want real and proper HD, you’ll need Foxtel with iq2/iqHD, a basic plues movies (Movie network) and/or sports package. That’s the only way you can get HD. just love the HD content on Foxtel especially when it comes to sports. Real and true HD. Look at the FTA “HD” channels. It’s virtually non-existent and a great article above.

  • Jarrod

    Who can we write to about this because this is a joke! We pay 1000’s for HD tv’s and the Australian Open tennis, cricket, AFL etc aren’t even shown in HD! However these are often replayed later on Foxtel in HD, proving these events are recorded with the HD hardware.
    Thank goodness every AFL game is live in HD on Foxtel (however this comes at a cost), but there is no hope for the tennis & cricket at this stage.
    P.S. as I speak, 1953 black & white movie “Laxdale Hall” is being shown on GEM in HD (the broadcast information received from my TV actually specifies 1080i HD!), while at the same time the cricket is on Ch9 in standard definition that I need glasses for after watching the Big Bash cricket season in HD on Foxtel.
    To whom shall I copy this into a letter to?

  • Rahul

    Hello there!

    I completely agree with your write up and am also disappointed with the lack of quality HDTV in Australia when the rest of the world seems to be embracing the technology. I have voiced this frustration to the senator and wait his reply.

  • George

    I fiercely agree with this article. What can we do?a bunch of people taking on the networks won’t work. This is crap! The old ten HD was stunning!then came One HD with pro bull riding in HD(awesome)….,not! It’s frustrating for all of us I know but what can we do?

  • Great blog post. I share your concerns with the lack of true HD vision available in Australia.

    Despite Foxtel promising 9 AFL games in “brilliant” and “stunning” HD every week, they have only been broadcasting 5 true HD games and 4 upscaled SD games.

    Here’s a blog post I have written up on the issue: Fans outraged at FoxFooty’s AFL SD broadcast

  • Nigel

    I would also like to express my utter despair at the disappointing situation of HDTV in this country. Thanks for the link, an email is on its way to Senator Conroy. IMHO the only conclusion that can be drawn is that vested interests are driving us to pay TV.

  • Eric

    Well written up.

    I note with some interest 9 are advertising their GEM broadcast of the London Olympics is in HD. Lets hope thats it is proper HD and the other networks follow suit with their programming. Seems like a nice point of difference for a networks marketing.

    It’s bordering on criminal what the networks have been getting away with and just another example of that foam at the mouth fruitcake Stephen Conroy’s ineptitude.

    Also I don’t think its a long bow to draw to suggest that vested interests could be at play here, i.e. Foxtel/Telstra.

  • Chris

    I totally agree with all comments.I have spent thousands on my current TV set-up only to get mostly sd content on free to air channels.There aren`t enough people making noise about this.This site should be flooded with comments.The general public should be educated about this and encouraged to protest.I will be emailing the senator, but what good will it do unless it`s done en masse.

  • adya

    wow , i started to research this after i noticed all of the hd channels dissapear… i thought it was just me who noticed this.. good to see others notice it to. I spend alot of time in asia, and pay tv is practically free there, its so cheap and good quality.. if they can do it ,why cant australian networks provide quality content?? cheap bastards thats all i can say… well, i dont watch much tv now , i just download bd rips at 1080p takes less than an hour to download and looks 10 times better than anything on tv..

  • I remember boasting to my friends about Wimbledon coverage on 9 four years ago. It was full HD, 5.1 audio, and I used to love it. The linesman’s calls will be split to the appropriate speaker based on their position relative to the players on our side of TV. It was literally like standing next to the players, as every single audio element was so spectacularly accurate. The bounce of the ball, the umpires calls, the players shouts, everything was so cool.

    Now, it’s just awful. Its baffling to see that the TV execs in Australia collectively decided to let go of HD.

    This is one of the reasons why I hardly watch TV. I subscribed to both Hulu and Netflix and hardly notice what’s on local TV. The only time I watch TV is for cricket, and today I was lucky enough to catch some of it on GEM which was HD, then back to 9 for good old SD. Un-freakin-believable.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>