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Future of digital TV on SBS programming.

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Future of digital TV on SBS programming


Digital Broadcasting Conference


Nigel Milan, Managing Director, Specical Broadcasting Service Australia

7 July 1998




DIGITAL. It’s a small word. But boy it’s impact is going to be huge. I think all of us here today (no matter what we know, or think we know about digital technology) are going to be amazed by its full impact.


The iceberg analogy is true. Today we’re looking at the tip, and bearing down on the iceberg. I’m excited by the prospect. And take my word for it: I’m not reaching for my life jacket.


This conference is titled Restructuring the Australian Broadcasting Industry. Maybe the word should be rebuilding’ considering what needs to be done.


A recent article in World Broadcast News was headed TV in America: If you build it, will they come?’ Is digital television a Field of Dreams? I wonder?


The article went on to say that there has not yet been a consumer electronics show where the number of working HDTV digital television sets exceeded the fingers on a person’s hands.


I want to talk first about HDTV receivers and how their availability will impact on SBS’s digital programming choices.


Australia, like the United States, is are heading down the HDTV path, and I wholeheartedly support this approach. HDTV is the cornerstone of the future of television broadcasting. It can deliver cinema quality pictures and surround sound to your living room. And it’s a free-to-air service.


Many of the demonstrations of HDTV in recent months have been very impressive. But in most cases they fall well short of the superb quality of true HDTV.


There are two reasons for this.


First, the program material is rarely top-quality. And secondly, the current display technologies are unable to produce pictures that meet the technical requirements for top-class HDTV pictures.


The truth is that no one, anywhere in the world, is producing HDTV consumer receivers. There are a few early prototypes with a variety of displays. Some use huge conventional picture tubes, others have large flat plasma screens. Then there are projection systems and mirror based technologies.


Almost all the cost in an HDTV television set is in the display, and it’s quite clear that it will be several years before low-cost large screen HDTV displays will be here.


There is a big question mark, too, surrounding Australia’s timetable for the digital roll-out. Is it realistic?


Interestingly, TV Broadcast magazine in March published the results of a survey of US television stations. This set of data caught my eye:


• When stations think they will start offering DTV services

• When stations think 50% of households will have DTV sets

• When stations say 29% of households will have HDTV sets

• When stations think analog TV will be switched off.


What about programming? Here too, the digital age will mean dramatic readjustments and realignments.


I read with interest a recent statement from Michael Jordan, not the basketball player but the Chairman of Westinghouse (the parent of CBS) where he said: "Ne tworks are slowly losing their audiences as more channels are added to cable and satellite services and we have to assume the current trend will continue. But to me, high-definition with sports, movies and major entertainment is a way to arrest that decline. Only the major players are going to do it. And it’s going to help us; it gives us an advantage."


What does all this mean?


Well for SBS it means that for a company of our size and market share, HDTV will be an extremely hard road.


We’re unlikely to be able to compete in the area of high-definition sports, first- run American movies and major entertainment - except, of course, for the world’s greatest sporting event, the World Cup.


SBS may become strong in the HDTV market as product becomes more readily available and we reach the point where many households have an HDTV digital set. But this looks to me to be somewhere around the year 2007. That’s six years down the track from when we start digital broadcasting in Australia.


What’s to be done? What’s the strategy?


The answer is twofold. SBS needs to build strengths in the area of multi-channel services. It also must take advantage of the expected dominant market in digital set-top boxes in the early years of digital television.


Remember, digital television support s a wide range of formats other than the highest quality HDTV. There will probably be a small number of variations of HDTV together with a much larger range of other formats.


These are:


• EDTV - Extended Definition TV, wide screen and nearly as good as HDTV

• SDTV - Standard Definition TV, similar to analog but clearer pictures

• LDTV - Low Definition TV, which is often excellent for selected material.


In the early years of digital television, I’d expect many people to buy a digital set-top box, particularly as HDTV sets are likely to be very expensive.


A set-top box can receive all the digital services and display them on a conventional analog television set. While at first sight this might appear a waste of money, the digital set-top box will give clear, sharp, ghost-free and interference-free pictures. It will also let you see all the digital programming and much of the supplementary data services.


You will, of course, need to choose how you view the wide screen programming - in letterbox, for example - but I don’t believe this will be a major problem for many people. Mind you, a relatively low-cost option is to use a set-top box together with an analog wide screen receiver. This will offer many of the advantages of HDTV except for the terrific picture quality of HDTV. There’s no doubt that digital television, through HDTV, can deliver the largest and most superb pictures and sound, but there are other ways of utilising digital which can be smarter.


SBS is looking to provide Australians with an expanded and intelligent range of choices.


We believe SBS can contribute to narrowing the gap between the information rich and the information poor by the way we develop our digital programming.


SBS can provide digital services which complement the ABC and the mainstream commercial broadcasters, and which are entirely consistent with our charter.


To this end, it’s imperative that SBS be permitted to offer multi-channel services. We can use this basic feature of digital television to develop special program streams that can be televised in tandem with our primary service.


One example would be a continuous stream of multilingual news and information programs built on our highly successful WorldWatch programming.


Each week, in a morning cavalcade of news programs, we broadcast more than 50 hours of satellite-fed news programs in 18 languages. Most of them go to air within hours of broadcast in their homeland.


Spread evenly throughout the day, and regularly updated, this valuable first-hand news source could be readily accessed by a far wider audience at more convenient times. There are other obvious programming streams. We’re regularly asked to expand our coverage of national and international cultural events, and this could be a natural flow-through into multi-channelling. We have other ideas about ‘in-language’ services and we’re keen to establish some low-cost youth programming, with the emphasis on common links between first- and second-generation Australians.


Within SBS, our digital television content committee and its radio equivalent are focusing on program concepts and ideas. We’re thinking well beyond the conventional boundaries of broadcasting, because digital innovation takes in vast new fields of enterprise.


One innovative concept would be to c arry some radio on digital television. Not just ordinary radio, but radio with pictures. I’m particularly familiar with Sydney radio announcer Doug Mulray’s excursion into new broadcasting fields. He has three or four video cameras set up in his radio studio and these can be switched with the microphones, or function independently. He generates a lot of fun radio. The only problem is getting the bandwidth to broadcast this kind of radio.


The Internet can’t do it yet but digital television could. We have some ideas about radio with pictures and our new SBS radio studios in Melbourne, which are due to go to air in 2001, might be just the vehicle for this.


On a more conventional front, we’re considering whether to add some SBS Radio channels to our digital television services. At present, our radio services are broadcast in all capital cities and several key regional centres. If we could make these availabl e to non-metropolitan Australians it would be a valuable enhancement of our programming. It also would mirror the approach of many Pay-TV operators where radio channels complement the video.


It’s important to remember that digital television broadcasting is basically a 20 megabit pipe into people’s homes. It can carry anything that can be represented as a data stream.


While its dominant use will be for television, it is another convergent media that is entirely suited to radio and data as well. There has been a lot of discussion of data, but radio may well find a niche on DTTB, especially where it can offer an extended range of services.


Digital radio also starts in 2001, using the Eureka 147 technology. I have no doubt at all that it will be highly valued and appreciated by our audience if we also broadcast SBS Radio programs to rural Australians over our digital television network.




Datacasting is another area where we see a particular niche for SBS. The technology more than suits this purpose. At this early stage we expect to place less emphasis on HDTV - which consumes all the channel capacity for one television service - and more on multi-channel, including data broadcasting. We believe there are many opportunities in datacasting and we may be better positioned to serve portable and mobile markets.


One of our great strengths, or advantages, over the commercial stations is that SBS is a national television network, and for datacasters that means access to a national market. We expect they will see SBS as their first-choice service provider.


While on programming matters, the sectoral diversity in the structure of Australian broadcasting is important.


We have commercial, national and community free-to-air broadcasting, complemented by a range of narrowcast and subscription services. The commercially driven expansion of the number of channels and the quality changes that HDTV will bring, will have a major effect upon consumer choice.


Even so, I expect the mainstream broadcasters will continue to concentrate on a relatively narrow range of popular free-to-air programming. In this environment, SBS will continue to be recognised for its difference, its intelligent programming, and its unrivalled variety. SBS will be one broadcaster that provides free access to a broad range of product as we move into the digital era.


We will continue to take risks and stretch the boundaries, covering the widest possible variety of program genre and areas of interest. Digital will allow us to break with the past and use the technology to make SBS programming much more accessible to audiences.


Multiple channels


Within the constraints of program rights and funding we also plan to provide multiple channels of various SBS programs at alternative viewing times.


More than one quarter of all Australians tune to SBS at least one a week. They do so because there’s something on our channel they value. We plan to offer them more, to increase their viewing options, and we believe our programming will be an important factor in many people deciding to purchase a set-top box to receive digital television.


If you think what you watch on television and how you watch it won’t change with digital, think again.


Canal Plus in France already provides us with a glimpse of what’s possible. In this case it’s a 60-channel digital television service via cable.


That figure, in fact, understates their transmission capability as those channels include a radio service with multiple stations and music channels with multiple audio options.


Canal Plus does provide a sign post for Australia’s terrestrial-provided digital service in the area of multi-view. French viewers of their nation’s Grand Prix last week had a viewing choice of remarkable diversity that would be the envy of our petrol heads here in Australia.


They could access six separate feeds. They could watch the main action at the front of the field. Or, if there was an interesting battle going on further back in the race, they could switch to that. They could follow a particular driver, or they could che ck out the action in the pits. And so on. It’s great television.


Another digital advantage for Canal Plus viewers is subtitling. French viewers can choose to watch a movie in the language of origin, or they can switch to another channel to follow the action courtesy of subtitles.


Costs and resources


This is something of particular interest to SBS. With digital’s separate audio channels, much of SBS programming - if we have the money - can be strengthened with multilingual audio tracks. As you can see, d igital means new flexibility and features. It also means new costs and new resources.


For SBS, I see four main cost elements. These are:


• The cost of program acquisition.


This covers program purchasing, program production and commissioned material. This will be more expensive than for analog because we will need to acquire much of our material in one of the wide screen or high definition formats. We’ll also need more material to fill our multi-channel program streams. It’s likely there will also be added rights costs for time shifted programming.


• The cost of presentation and playout.


Major changes will be needed to our playout centre at Artarmon to cope with multi-channel playout and the needs of HDTV and wide screen. The equipment will also need to manage our existing multiple advertising streams, time zone delay technology (probably for four time zones) and related resources for the management of commercials, community service announcements, and promos. Datacasting costs would need to be met, although this would be borne by our datacasting partners.


• The cost of digital program distribution.


We expect to distribute our 20 megabit program streams directly to our network of transmitters by satellite. This will probably require four satellite feeds to provide local-time programming to NSW, Qld, SA and WA. These streams would be delivered from our Artarmon studios using, probably a full-time satellite transponder.


• The cost of the digital transmitter network.


This covers the cost of building a digital transmitter network across Australia, preferably rolled out concurrently with the ABC and commercial services. There’s another very important thing to remember. During the simulcast period - up to at least 2008 - where we’re broadcasting in both digital and analog, SBS will need to maintain its present analog playout system, its analog time zone delays, its analog distribution arrangements to transmitters, and its analog transmitter network.


The SBS and ABC analog networks may be among the last services to close because of our obligations to service our audiences in rural and remote Australia. It’s almost impossible to estimate the total digitisation costs for SBS.


We’ve talked with equipment suppliers, the commercial broadcasters and the ABC, but right now there’s a paucity of hard costing data to work with. I think respectable cost estimates will only come as we begin to push through with our implementation plans. Any figures we produce right now could be way over the top as today’s prices drop once manufacturers around the world gear up for the digital revolution in television.


One glaring example came to light recently concerning the costs for digital radio transmission. A group of Australian experts, who gave their estimates just two years ago, has now reduced the cost estimates by about 50 per cent. In this case, the reason was that the transmission equipment prices had dropped because the suppliers had shifted from pre-production to production volumes.


We still don’t know exactly how much digital television sets will cost, but you can be sure they will drop with time.One of the areas of greatest uncertainty for SBS is whether the government will agree to fund a national roll-out of SBS television across all of Australia, concurrent with the roll-out of ABC television. We believe this is the sensible and most efficient way of providing the transmission infrastructure for SBS.


The alternative is to provide SBS digital television so that it matches our present analog coverage. This would cost less in the short-term, but it would continue to disadvantage more than two million Australian’s who can’t receive SBS. That runs counter to our role as a national broadcaster. The regulatory environment for digital television will be particularly important. In the digital legislation, the government has chosen to put an array of matters into regulation rather than mandating through the legislation. Given the high level of uncertainty about how best to manage digital television, this seems an eminently sensible approach.


The down side, however, is that it creates a great deal of uncertainly in many areas. For example, there will be regulations about closed captioning for the hearing impaired, and it’s likely this will be mandatory during prime-time and for news and current affairs broadcasts.


While supporting this in principle, it would pose serious problems if we had to caption all our foreign language news broadcasts. In fact, it would be impossible. If there’s no flexibility in this area, we would have no choice but to drop these very important programs.




Closed captioning of English subtitled programs, perhaps in their source language, raises major production and technical problems and appears of little merit. There are very many areas where there will be regulations. These include:


• the transmission standard

• the broadcaster’s implementation plans

• the extent to which broadcasts are in HDTV

• the extent to which multi channel broadcasting is allowed

• the allowed application of multi-view and other formats

• the datacasting standards

• the conditional access arrangements

• the principles for determining datacasting charg es


SBS executives are already participating in several committees and will take an active interest in these review processes.


In summary, the impact of digital television on SBS throws up two main challenges. The first is designing the innovative programming streams for digital, then buying, making or commissioning the product we need for those streams.


The second is assembling all the technology to manage the digital program streams within our studios and to get them to the transmitters so our audience can access them. It’s a huge task, but we will make it.


Welcome to the era of digital television.