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Freeview shackles digital TV

  • 08 December 2008

The Federal Government last week passed legislation for a timetable to switch off the old analogue TV transmitters that are being replaced by digital technology.

Digital TV was introduced back in 2001, but takeup has been slow because the benefits have not been obvious to most consumers, and some need help with the technology. Recently the free to air TV networks launched Freeview, which is a marketing campaign that aims to help consumers make the switch to digital TV. On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with Freeview, which appears as simply an information campaign. But it is funded by the industry, and works by steering consumers towards buying 'approved' TV receivers and set-top boxes, which carry the Freeview badge. Manufacturers conform to a set of specifications to earn approval.

All digital receivers receive all channels, but to access enhanced features such as full electronic program guide (EPG), users will require Freeview. Freeview chair Kim Dalton — who is also the ABC's Director of Television — calls them 'appropriate technical standards'. This implies that the approval is about protecting the consumer from poor quality equipment and unscrupulous manufacturers. The reality is that it is just as much about limiting what the technology can do, in order to protect the revenues of the commercial TV networks. The specifications have not been made public. But industry insiders are saying they include a prohibition on the 30-second skip function that is now common with the recording and time-delay features of digital TV products currently on the market.

This prohibition will make it more difficult for consumers to avoid watching advertisements. In other words, it looks after the interests of the commercial TV networks, against those of the consumer. Further evidence of the restrictive rather than enabling nature of Freeview comes with confirmation that full EPG information will be made available only to Freeview-approved devices. Government protection of the big business interests of the commercial TV networks, against those of smaller operations and the public, has long been a part of Australia's media landscape. Kerry Packer is no longer with us, but the networks' lobbying power continues to hold sway. Last week, the Greens spoke out for the small but vital community television sector, which is being left out of the digital TV equation (currently it uses analogue channel 31 in most capital cities). Away from Canberra, there is clear evidence that the big networks are determined to bully and eliminate small operators, with