Back when I was a boy, we only had two TV channels. That was in regional NSW, in the big-city they had five. And for most of the country (population wise) five channels was the norm until the great switch to Digital began over a decade ago now. In 2016, it’s a whole new landscape with more than 25 channels available free-to-air. But the question is, how do you get them – or perhaps more importantly why can’t you get them all?
It’s been one of the most common topic for questions I’ve been asked over the last few months on my weekly radio show on 2UE and on my podcast Your Tech Life.
The questions are things like
- Why can’t I get the new 9 HD channel?
- Why am I only getting sound on the new 9HD channel?
- Will I be able to watch the new Channel 7 channel?
- Is Channel 7 switching to HD?
- Will 7mate still be in HD?
- Is Channel 10 switching to HD?
- When will the ABC switch to HD?
I won’t answer each of those, but let’s talk about what’s happening and how to try to answer those questions yourself.
Why the sudden rush for new channels and HD finally?
Don’t be fooled by some of the media hype around changes to government regulations. In fact, the Government changes allowed for networks to broadcast their main channel in HD, SD or a combination of both. Previously, the main channel had to be in SD but nothing (at a government level) precluded them from also simulcasting that channel in HD – just look at SBS.
What happened back when Digital started was a sudden rush to HD, mostly in Simulcast form. But when the Network big-wigs realised they could add more and more channels those new channels took up the HD bandwidth within the limited spectrum each channel has.
Each network only has a small allocated “airspace” to broadcast within, and they have to fit their channels into that space. What’s happened more recently is the ability to broadcast a channel using a new encoding technology called MPEG-4 – this technology squeezes a channel into a much, much smaller space. While the technology is not new, it’s all the rage because it’s been in TVs for a few years, plus Malcolm Turnbull as Communication Minister specifically called out the technology in several speeches so the networks are keen to test it and get more bang from their buck so to speak when it comes to their “airspace” or more correctly their spectrum allocation.
Why the new channels from all the networks?
Just as when Digital began, a new channel means more revenue. So, with networks looking at their spectrum and trying to work out how to squeeze as much in as they can – this huge chunk of HD space seemed out-of-place. A HD channel would take up the space of 3 or 4 SD channels – not very efficient when it comes to return from advertisters.
With the concept of MPEG-4 offering a HD channel in half the space, thus freeing up room for another SD channel – things got very interesting. This is why you’re seeing the HD option always going to MPEG-4, while the new channel is broadcast in MPEG-2 (the old format).
Cut in half the spectrum the HD channel takes up, throw in new channels in the saved space, but still offer a HD service? That’s win-win right?
Here’s how that looks in really simplified form going from MPEG-2 only on the left, to a new MPEG-4 supporting world (Where the blue channels are MPEG-2 and the orange is MPEG-4)
In this example, using the exact same amount of spectrum, a network goes from two channels – with two content streams, to four channels and three content streams (ie: one new channel, plus a new Simulcast of the main channel in HD). This could easily be four distinct channels including one in HD, or five SD channels. In fact, in MPEG-4 only, this could be 10 SD channels or more.
Why can’t I see the new channels?
Well, that’s the frustration for some. MPEG-4 support is only a new thing. Certainly any TV you buy today should support MPEG-4. However, perhaps some cheaper ones don’t. Any quality TV bought in the last 5 years should support it, but going beyond that it’s really hard to tell.
Channels broadcsating in MPEG-4 are: Racing.com, 7Flix, 9HD, and shortly 10HD and an ABC offering.
Some TVs have the capability to support it, but need a firmware upgrade to do so.
So the simple reasons why you can’t see them are:
- You need to retune your TV
- Your TV doesn’t support MPEG-4
- Your TV requires a firmware upgrade to support MPEG-4
- You don’t live in a Metro area where the major networks control the transmission (Most regional/country areas are actually serviced by entirely separate broadcasters who simply have agreements to carry content from the major metro networks. The issue here is those stations also need to spend the money to upgrade their broadcast systems and transmission to cope with new channels. Not cheap and harder to justify in smaller areas.
- You’re watching Free-to-air via Foxtel. While you might think it’s your right to get free-to-air channels via your Foxtel box, it’s not. The channels each need to reach agreement with Foxtel then setup the actual delivery of the channel to Foxtel who re-broadcast it. This differs for cable and satellite subscribers. Unlplug your Foxtel, plug an antenna into your TV then see what you can get. Use Foxtel for Foxtel channels, and switch to your TV channels for the Free-to-air.
How can I upgrade to see the new channels?
The first thing to do is to check your TV. Look up the specifications online. Call the manufacturer. Search online. Search though for the specific model number, not just the brand – any brand will have models that did and didn’t support MPEG-4 over time.
If its available, look for a firmware upgrade. This is an upgrade to the brains of your TV – it’s software. This is often done via a download online, copied onto a USB stick and inserted into the TV at startup.
Failing all that, you’ll need either:
- A new TV
- a Set-top box
- Move to a Metro area (yes, I know, that’s crazy – but just making the point – of course the other option is to lobby/call your local TV station)
- Stop using Foxtel for your Free-to-air
Whatever you buy, you should 100% confirm it has MPEG-4 support first!
What does TV look like in 2016?
Let’s look at each of the network’s linup one by one and see how they’ve adjusted to take advantage of their spectrum.
(In the tables below – Blue channels are MPEG-2, Orange channels are MPEG-4)
As of this week, the Seven Network added a whole new channel (7Flix) and will soon launch their HD simulcast. While that hasn’t been formally announced yet, as hinted when the new channel first hit the airwaves, it’s a no-brainer for Seven and the main stumbling block as their NFL contract (which EFTM understands stipulated HD for the NFL). With that complete, it’s likely we’ll get a big-bang announcement prior to the AFL season.
Seven is the first to launch an entirely new channel in MPEG-4 and the first ratings put it in a good place comparative to similar multi-channels on the other networks.
We’ve assumed for this chart that the HD Channel will launch this year – when they do that, they’ll be able to increase the quality (Dramatically) of the 7flix channel also.
This table, while crude, might explain to you why the quality of the 7Flix channel isn’t so flash right now.
All done and dusted, the MPEG-4 pioneers for Australia copped plenty of flack from viewers unable to watch their new 9HD service – but as the FAQs for all the networks do and will stipulate, you’re not losing out here – because the content is still available in SD – if you want it in HD – time to upgrade
Coming very soon, Ten will switch One to be an SD channel and enable a HD Simulcast for the primary channel. Given their spectrum is also heavily utilised by “shopping” channels, it’s possible another channel will come soon too (Sky News perhaps?)
While nothing is official, the ABC have committed to a HD simulcast. We can only assume that will mean switching News 24 to SD and enabling an MPEG-4 Channel – but we’ll have to wait and see. Here’s our assumption
SBS is unique – this time last year they didn’t have the same amount of spectrum as the other networks. Having completed an upgrade since the Analogue switch-off, that space is now available and enabled them to launch the Food Network. We can assume they are looking closely at MPEG-4 take-up rates to determine how to use that spectrum going forward – though I have no direct knowledge of those plans.
Given the number of MPEG-4 channels in the market, some might jump to applaud the success of MPEG-4 – however, there is no data – none, on MPEG-4 viewing capabilities/penetration. The ratings for any MPEG-4 channel are combined ratings for the overall viewership of that content stream (ie: 9 + 9HD). 7Flix ratings are strong (for a multi-channel) but do not tell us who couldn’t tune in. Only Seven could even guess at that based likely on viewer calls/feedback.
No station, no network, no channel, has switched from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, thus, there is no solid evidence of the scale of MPEG-4 penetration in Australia. My view – it’s low. Possibly 40%.. Possibly 70% – but even at 70% any switch means a loss of 30% of audience, no network would be willing to accept that right now – or ever.
Seven’s new 7Flix is rating 2.3% on first outing. Not bad. And if 70% penetration is assumed in Australia, that number would only grow to 3.2% in a 100% availability world. Turn that around the other way, and Seven’s 25.3% winning night on the main channel would drop to just 17.7% if it was only available to 70% of the audience. Not a tough decision to make, and certainly not a risk any network would be willing to take right now.
The only way to ensure 100% MPEG-4 penetration is to mandate it – and what government is going to force every Australian to buy a new TV – again. None.
But lets remember, it wasn’t that long ago we only had five TV channels – ok.