High-definition (HD) sports coverage will remain sparse this year, as broadcasters continue to focus their attention on movies and weekly prime-time programs. The 2006 Winter Olympics, Commonwealth Games and FIFA World Cup will all be broadcast in the lower-resolution standard-definition (SD) format.
Technical staff at channels Seven and Nine did not respond to our specific enquiries, but spokespeople from both networks did finally confirm that the Winter Olympics (commencing today) and the Commonwealth Games (commencing mid-March) will both be broadcast in SD.
Nor should Australians be holding their breath to watch the Socceroos' long-awaited participation in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in high definition. According to Host Broadcast Services -- the company charged with producing global World Cup 2006 coverage -- the event, which commences in June, will be shot in the 1080i HDTV format. But alas, SBS has declined to use these HD feeds, instead adopting the widescreen SD format.
SBS cited bandwidth and cost issues as the reasons for their decision to show the World Cup in SD. Paul Broderick, the network's CTO, told CNET.com.au that SBS has a "choice between presenting it [World Cup 2006] in high definition and offering extra multi-channel services, but it's difficult to do both." He also noted that "the costs associated with acquiring programs in high-definition [are] more than standard definition."
Multi-channelling allows broadcasters to use their digital bandwidth to provide additional channels on top of regular broadcasts. For example, SBS currently transmits a 'World News Channel' on channel 33, which features eighteen hours of news from around the globe each day. A full list of the extra channels currently being provided by local networks can be found here.
With the limited bandwidth currently available to broadcasters, using multi-channelling as opposed to transmitting content in high-definition is arguably a more logical choice, given that the current uptake of HDTV-enabled TV sets in Australia is still low. According to market research firm GfK, of the 1,900,346 colour televisions sold in 2005, only 385,799, or 20 percent, were HD-Ready.
Chicken and egg conundrum
Given the above take-up figures, Derek Nash, a senior account director at GfK, believes that it may be wrong to expect broadcasters to concentrate significant efforts on HDTV. Says Nash, "Does everybody go and buy a HDTV hoping that things will change, or do we need the networks to say 'OK, we're going to start broadcasting more', in turn providing drivers for consumers to make HDTV purchases?"
Landry Fevre, a research director at analyst firm IDC takes a different view. He says that "you can always blame it on the slow adoption, but if you don't show what high-definition can do when you have big opportunities [such as World Cup 2006], then you're not going to help the process."
"In Australia people tend to always say the take-up or market is not there, but you've got to provide the incentive to the market and give them the opportunity to take it up," he added.
Knowledge is power
Both Fevre and Nash agree that a primary factor hindering HDTV take-up in Australia is the fact that consumers are still uneducated as to the format's benefits. "There's still so much education to be done.... These major sporting events are the types of opportunities where we can really show the difference [between HD and SD]," said Fevre.
Nash echoed these statements, noting "I don't think the advantages [of HDTV] have been clearly explained."
Yet in addition to educating the general public as to the benefits of HDTV, Nash also believes that the government and broadcasters must first convince a far greater number of consumers to dump their analog sets and upgrade to digital.
"At the moment there's no particular timeframe to switch off analog. Until that happens, I think the market's left floundering," he said.
According to Digital Broadcasting Australia, of the country's 7.6 million homes, only 1.2 million or 15.5 percent have upgraded to digital TV.
Nash isn't convinced that digital TV penetration figures will increase until the government sets a definitive analog switch off date. "Legislators should say 'As of this date, this is what will happen,' to get people switching across. At the moment, no one really knows when and how it's going to happen ... it's sitting in no-man's land."
Analog TV was originally scheduled to be switched off at the end of 2008 in metropolitan markets and by the end of 2011 in regional markets, but last year these dates were put under review. The government has yet to make any firm decisions as to whether or not the dates will be revised.
Prime-time weeklies still going strong
Prime-time weekly programs from Seven, Nine and Ten continue to dominate the current selection of HDTV content, however sparse it may be.
Seven's HD programs include Prison Break, Las Vegas, Lost and Ghost Whisperer, while Nine is offering HD feeds of McLeod's Daughters, A Current Affair, Without a Trace, CSI:NY, Close To Home, The Triangle and Invasion. Network Ten has decided on Supernatural, Surface, The OC, Medium, Smallville, House and the Law & Order franchise to lead its 2006 HD charge.