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The Transition to Digital Television in the United States:



Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age JINNA TAY AND GRAEME TURNER


Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up? JOCK GIVEN AND PAUL NORRIS


White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi? ANDREW STIRLING



Preparations for Digital Switchover in Japan: An Update NORIO KUMABE


Digital Television Switchover in China: Editor’s Note


China’s Digital Switchover:

International Context MICHAEL STARKS


The Positioning and Current Situation of China’s Digital TV ZHOU YAN


A Description of China’s Digital Cable TV Services WANG WEI

Conference Reports


Digital Television in Developing Countries? Reflections from the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s Asia-Pacific Conference in Tonga


Digital TV and Democratic Media in Post-Communist Europe: Reflections from the ‘Beyond East and West’ Conference Hosted by the Central European University in Budapest



YouTube – Online Video and Participatory Culture, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, with Contributions by Henry Jenkins and John Hartley (2009)


Digital Television in Europe, edited by Wendy van den Broeck and Jo Pierson (2008)

125–126 Media and Communication Technologies, A Critical Introduction, Stephen Lax


JDTV 1 (1) pp. 3–5 Intellect Limited 2010

International Journal of Digital Television Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.3/2



The launch of a new journal stimulates a lot of basic questions. Who are we? What are we trying to do and why? What defines the subject matter suffi- ciently to distinguish this venture from the range of journals which already cover media and telecommunications? Where to start? Well, the editors have a mix of academic and professional experience and are of three different nationalities (our biographical details are included at the end of this issue). We hope that our contributors and our read- ership will be similarly mixed, since our aim is to bring together the work of academics, policy-makers and practitioners from across the globe. We would like to see the journal build up, and disseminate, an understanding of digital television in different countries, as digital switchover takes place progressively and as the television industry enters a new era as a result. The backdrop to our initiative is the switchover process, now widespread internationally, of introducing digital television transmission and, after a transition period which may be as short as a year or last a decade or more, switching off analogue terrestrial television. The first regional digital switcho- ver was accomplished in Berlin in 2003. The first complete national analogue terrestrial switch offs were achieved by the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 2006, followed by Finland and Sweden in 2007. Switzerland and Germany came next and the United States achieved its nationwide analogue terrestrial switch-off in June 2009. The UK and several other European countries have switched off in certain regions. During the next three or four years most of the advanced economies of the world are expected to complete their own national switchovers and many more will embark upon the process. Nowhere has switchover been without risks or problems – whether com- mercial, legal or political – and generally, it has proved much easier to start digital broadcasting than to end analogue. Thus there is plenty of scope for learning from comparative study.

Michael Starks

However, the journal’s role will be much broader than this. Digital televi- sion transmission is part of the pattern of digitization of nearly all forms of audio and video production, distribution and reception – and this common

reliance on the digital coding of signals has led to the well-known convergence

of the television, computer and telecommunications technologies. This in turn

has sparked innovation in the service provision and consumer usage of televi- sion and a blurring of the distinction between broadcasting and the Internet.

So the journal will explore the expanding agenda of issues around the result- ing transformation of television’s operations and audiences, examining the editorial, financial, social and cultural dimensions. Closely related is the question of the implications for regulation: first, what regulatory approach is required in order to achieve digital switchover

and, second, how then to reconcile the historically relatively strict regulation

of television content with the generally lighter system of telecommunications

regulation? Given the strength of the current of convergence, is it practical – in setting the journal’s scope – to continue to separate digital television from related forms of digital telecommunications? Does digital television retain any distinctive character within an all-digital communications framework? Our answer is ‘Not entirely and probably decreasingly, but, even so, yes’. For the medium term at any rate, television and telecommunications, while over- lapping, have a different focus from one another, conventionally expressed as the distinction between ‘one to many’ and ‘one to one’ communications. Moreover, digital TV is being shaped not just by synergies with telecommu- nications but also by two other developments (which in many countries pre- ceded digital switchover):

the spread of multi-platform distribution, diminishing the importance of terrestrial television reception;

the replacement of the cathode-ray tube by flat-screen LCD and plasma receivers, with large screen sizes boosting consumer interest in high defi- nition TV.


we accept the existence of something distinctive called digital television

(albeit with fuzzy edges), why should it be the subject for study on a compara- tive international basis and what contribution can a journal in this field aim


make? At least three fields of research and analysis suggest themselves. The first


the motivation, at national level, for digital switchover. Commercial motives

are, of course, equally important and in some countries the major analogue

terrestrial broadcasters have had incentives to adopt the new technology, while in others they have had a vested interest in the ‘status quo’. However, the decision to make digital television compulsory throughout a whole nation

is ultimately a political one and, on the evidence to date, the policy ‘drivers’

have varied by place and by time. The mix of industrial policy, communica- tions strategy, and spectrum efficiency motives therefore bears investigation. For countries which have not yet embarked on digital switchover, especially developing countries with relatively low consumer spending power and with other priorities, the question of ‘why switch?’ is fundamental. Second, enough evidence has now accumulated for it to be possible to analyse, on a comparative international basis, the key elements required for

a successful digital switchover. The early experience of digital broadcaster


bankruptcies in the UK and in Spain, and the history of governments naming

a target analogue switch off date and then postponing it, are symptoms of

some of the commercial and political difficulties that underlie switchover pol-

icy. Comparative study can illuminate essential differences between national markets which require variations of approach – but also common principles which are relevant to any country designing its strategy. Early work in this field was based on an analysis of a relatively small number of countries still in the transition stage of switchover. Increasingly now, as more countries com- plete the process and others start, the evidence available for comparative study

is expanding, bringing in the perspectives of Latin America and South Africa,

for example, to complement those of North America, Europe, Australasia and East Asia. The third major field for research and analysis is the character of dig- ital television, in its wider communications setting, which is emerging from switchover. This includes the topics which relate to convergence: on-demand services, Internet TV, mobile television (or mobile phones with video features and services). Then there is the ‘digital dividend’ – the benefits which coun- tries choose to reap from auctioning or reallocating the spectrum saved in switching off analogue terrestrial TV. As well as seeing what new devices and services can be developed, it is important to assess the implications for the former analogue broadcasters and their viewers. What impact does the expan- sion in the number of broadcasters, coupled with the rise of the Internet, have on advertisement-based funding? How does the ‘digital supermarket’ of TV

choice affect citizens’ and politicians’ willingness to provide public funding for television? We will look too at digital radio, where the obstacles to switchover seem greater than for TV. Wider political and social questions are also emerging. How is audience behaviour affected? Are viewers all becoming their own programme control- lers and, if so, what are the social implications of audience fragmentation? Does it weaken the financial basis for high-quality expensive productions? With a plurality of TV channels now, is there any continuing justification for the reulatory requirement for ‘due impartiality’ in news and current affairs and, if not, is this a benefit or a loss to democratic institutions? For an international journal especially, the other topic of great significance

is the pattern of international television. The initial phase of international sat-

ellite broadcasting was associated with the dominance of a relatively small number of mainly American channels, creating concerns in other countries about US cultural imperialism and the global imposition of an American news agenda. Will the continuing creation of new digital satellite television chan- nels by an increasing number of other countries, coupled with the spread of cable distribution, redress this balance in the future? These then are some starting thoughts for the journal’s first issue, mapping out some of the territory that could be explored in future editions. However, where the journey takes us in practice will depend on the contributions and feedback which we greatly look forward to receiving.

JDTV 1 (1) pp. 7–29 Intellect Limited 2010

International Journal of Digital Television Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.7/1

JEFFREY A. HART Indiana University, USA

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States:

The Endgame


The switching off of analogue television on 12 June 2009 and the delays that led up to it are the focus of the analysis here. All digital transitions are difficult but the US transition was successful in the end, in spite of a number of decisions and policies that made life confusing and overly complicated at one time or another for all concerned. The decision to delay the analogue switch off from 17 February to 12 June 2009 was one of the first initiatives undertaken by the newly elected Obama administration. The delay was necessary because of the under-funding of a programme to provide coupons for analogue-digital converter boxes to those still dependent on over-the-air broadcasts.


digital television (DTV) high definition television (HDTV) digital transition analogue switch off Federal Communications Commission (FCC) multicasting must-carry rules


The entire US broadcasting system made the transition from analogue to dig- ital broadcasting on 12 June 2009; on this date, all analogue transmissions ceased, with only minor exceptions. The transition to digital television (DTV) was originally scheduled to take place at the end of 2006, but that deadline was

Jeffrey A. Hart

set back: first to 31 December 2008, then to 17 February 2009, and then finally to 12 June 2009. The setting back of these deadlines reveals a lot about contem- porary American politics and even more about the politics of broadcasting. To understand the debates over deadlines it will be necessary to review both the original decisions to adopt a DTV standard in the United States and those made later. One major factor in the most recent delay was the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, so some effort will be made here to discuss how the DTV transition became an issue during and after the 2008 presidential campaign. One way to explain the delays is to examine closely the FCC’s decisions in the 1990s to adopt a DTV standard during the Clinton administration, and subsequent FCC policies adopted during the administration of George W. Bush. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) was the primary forum for decision making about how to implement the transition. It was responsible for monitoring the performance of other agencies, such as the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), who were put in charge of certain aspects of the transition. The relationship between the FCC and Congress is central to explaining the FCC’s policies. The relation- ships between the FCC and powerful private interest groups like the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association, and the Consumer Electronics Association were also important.


The US government decided to adopt the Japanese standard for high defini- tion television (HDTV) in 1985 but changed its mind when objections were raised, first by the European Union and then later by powerful domestic economic interests (Hart 2004). After the election of George H.W. Bush in November 1988, there was a brief flirtation with adopting a policy of direct government subsidies for the development of HDTV technology, but top advisers to President Bush shot down this policy. The task of defining how to respond to the challenge of the transition from an existing television system to a new one went to the FCC. The FCC had already appointed an Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services (ACATS) in 1987 (during the Reagan administration) to examine the question of how to make the transition to a new system of televi- sion broadcasting. ACATS decided that the best way to proceed was to estab- lish a competition among groups of firms and research laboratories, who were asked to produce prototypes of advanced TV systems for testing in third-party laboratories. The main incentive for participating in the competition was the potential economic return from owning the intellectual property connected with developing the technologies for the new system. Seven systems were proposed by the June 1990 deadline for testing. Several smaller firms and laboratories who had said they would submit pro- posals had already dropped out of the running by that time. Two days before the deadline, General Instrument announced that it was submitting a pro- posal based on a new method of compressing digitized HDTV video signals into a 6 megahertz bandwidth. As a result of this unexpected development, FCC Chairman Al Sikes expressed a strong preference for all-digital systems. By summer 1991, there were only five major proposed systems left from the original seven: (1) the Advanced Digital Television (ADTV) system pro- posed by the Advanced Television Research Consortium made up of the

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States Digital switchover in the United States: a

Digital switchover in the United States: a Federal Communications Commission poster.

Jeffrey A. Hart

North American Philips Corporation, Thomson Consumer Electronics, NBC, Compression Labs, Inc., and the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey; (2) the Spectrum Compatible (SC) system proposed by Zenith and AT&T with support from Scientific-Atlanta; (3) the Narrow MUSE system proposed by NHK; and (4) and (5) two all-digital systems proposed by the American Television Alliance (MIT and General Instrument). MIT and General Instrument formed the American Television Alliance as a joint venture in April 1991, the Zenith–AT&T partnership followed closely on its heels. The Advanced Television Research Consortium added the Compression Labs as a partner when it felt it needed more help with creating an all-digital system. Scientific-Atlanta joined the Zenith–AT&T team to help them develop a workable HDTV cable system (Sweet 1991). When it was absolutely clear that the FCC would not choose an analogue system – and just before it was NHK’s turn to test its narrow MUSE entry – NHK withdrew from the competition. That left three teams with four systems in the race. The American Television Alliance – MIT and General Instrument – entered two slightly different sys- tems in the competition: a joint entry with an 1125/60 interlaced production format and a MIT-only system with progressive scanning. The FCC would make its final decisions on HDTV standards based on the recommendation of ACATS. The recommendations from ACATS would depend at least partly on the reported results of the Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC) and Cable Labs testing process. On 16 February 1993, Richard Wiley of ACATS reported that the tests had yielded ‘no superior system’, and that all of the proposed systems were quite similar but flawed in some respect. Accordingly, ACATS recommended two alternative courses of action: (1) ask the three teams to merge into a super team that would solve the remaining technical problems to the satisfaction of ACATS and the FCC; or (2) allow the teams more time to perfect their systems and then have a second round of tests. The first course of action was preferred because it would save the time and expense of a new round of tests and would eliminate the possibility that a losing team would initiate litigation over the fairness of the competition (Carnevale 1993). On 24 May 1993, the three teams announced their decision to merge. The American system, therefore, would be a digital system. The Japanese Hi-Vision and European HD-MAC systems were both based on the delivery of analogue signals by DBS (Direct Broadcast Satellite) satellites. There was still some uncertainty whether it would be possible to devise practical means for delivering digital HDTV via terrestrial antennas, especially in noisy urban mar- kets, but Chairman Sikes leaned strongly in this direction in hopes that an all- digital HDTV will be something the US electronics firms could do better than the Japanese and the European firms. The Japanese and European firms would still be major suppliers of HDTV components and systems for the American market, no matter what standard was selected, because of the Research and Development (R&D) work they had already done and because the US market was likely to remain open to imports and inflows of direct investment. Most of the participants in this debate realized that an all-digital system would have important advantages over an analogue system in permitting manufacturers to add computer-like features to television sets and set-top boxes, and that these features would require some agreement to limit the types of image formats and digital information that the digital HDTV signal could carry. Thus, a compromise was worked out prior to the 24 May 1993 announcement of the formation of the Grand Alliance. This compromise called for the US digital transmission standard to be capable of encoding

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

Vertical pixels x horizontal lines

Frame rate in frames per second

Type of scanning


x 720






x 1080





Note: See discussion below for an explanation of the difference between progressive scanning and interlacing.

Table 1: Six video formats in the Grand Alliance system as of November 1994.

and decoding both interlaced and progressively scanned source material. The interlaced material would have 960 scanning lines at 30 frames per second; the progressive would have 720 lines at 60 frames per second (see Table 1). The original press release for the Grand Alliance announcement reported that all displays larger than 34 inches would be progressively scanned, but apparently that was an error. The Grand Alliance members felt that this would be an unnecessary handicap for them should non-members decide to offer (presumably cheaper) interlaced displays for large screen TVs. Since they could not legally force all non-members to use progressive displays, they decided to abandon the requirement. In the meantime, Reed Hundt had not yet been confirmed as Chairman of the FCC and the Clinton administration initially showed little interest in HDTV or the ACATS deliberations. Hundt himself was noncommittal. He was influenced in his views by his discussions with Negroponte and other computer industry notables. Hundt was looking for HDTV to play a role in the emergence of the National Information Infrastructure (NII). He wanted HDTV to be more like what George Gilder called a ‘teleputer’ – a television/compu- ter device that was seamlessly connected with computer networks. Wiley was worried that Hundt and the rest of the Clinton administration would scrap the HDTV deals made by the Republicans in the Bush administration. He felt that he no longer had the support of the Chairman of the FCC as he did under Al Sikes. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) chose this time of vulnerability to weigh in again against HDTV. John Abel of the NAB began to focus on the opportunities presented by digital television as opposed to HDTV. Digital TV did not have to involve HDTV images. Instead, digital compression of standard definition signals would ena- ble existing broadcasters to compress more than one programme service into a single channel, allowing them to provide a greater diversity of programming through what came to be called ‘multicasting’. A digital broadcasting environ- ment would permit broadcasters to offer all sorts of digital services such as data broadcasting, e-mail, paging, telephony, software delivery, etc. In February 1994, Michael Sherlock, Vice President of NBC, said that many broadcasters were interested in using the second channel that they would be

Jeffrey A. Hart

given in the transition to HDTV for digital services. He knew that the only reason that the second channel was being given to broadcasters was so that they would be able to provide free over-the-air services for analogue (NTSC) set owners until a large proportion of the viewing public could receive digital broadcasts. Nevertheless, he argued that the non-HDTV digital services might be more lucrative for the broadcasters than HDTV itself (Brinkley 1997: 289–290). Similarly, in March 1994, Rupert Murdoch began to talk about satellite and cable systems with large numbers of channels. In a March 1994 interview with Forbes magazine, Murdoch said

The current proposal is that the FCC will give us that spectrum for high- definition television. But high definition is a luxury. Compared with a modern TV set it’s not that different. Why shouldn’t that extra spectrum be given to me or you or anyone to put on that extra number of channels? (Brinkley 1997: 304)

The NAB pursued this logic politically by proposing an amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1995, called the ‘broadcast spectrum flexibility amendment’. This amendment would broaden the range of services that broad- casters could provide on the second channel given to them in the transition to ‘advanced television’. John Abel continued to argue that neither the broad- casters nor the consumers were demanding HDTV specifically, so broadcasters should not be forced to offer HDTV services (Brinkley 1997: 308–309). In 1995 the Telecommunications Act faced overwhelming Republican opposition to what they argued was an overly regulatory Democratic bill – the Republicans having been strengthened in their opposition by their resounding victory in the 1994 Congressional elections – and the Act was finally passed in 1996.


Testing of the Grand Alliance system continued through the end of 1993 and into early 1995. The Grand Alliance’s schedule called for comple- tion of the system in 1995 and a demonstration of its capabilities at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Technical evaluations were performed in 1994 at the Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC) in Alexandria, Virginia and at the Cable Television Laboratories (also called CableLabs) near Boulder, Colorado. Subjective viewer tests were performed at the Advanced Television Evaluation Laboratory in Ottawa, Canada; the Public Broadcasting Service, the Association for Maximum Service Television, Inc. (MSTV) and CableLabs in Charlotte, North Carolina, conducted field transmission tests. The trans- mission tests demonstrated some of the peculiar characteristics of digital broadcasting – the quick break up of picture quality beyond the transmission range of the antenna – as opposed to the more gradual degradation of picture quality with analogue transmission, but on the whole they were successful. At the beginning of 1995, completion of the Grand Alliance system was delayed because of technical difficulties. The main problem was the encoder that turned base band high definition video into compressed digital high- definition video at the transmission end. The two Grand Alliance companies in charge of this effort were General Instrument and AT&T. Due to delays in getting the new combined system to work, the companies requested a post- ponement of the final testing date. This time, instead of readily accepting the delay, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt decided to speed things up. He pushed

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

Richard Wiley, the head of ACATS, to put pressure on the Grand Alliance members to complete their system. Hundt’s perception of the value of HDTV had changed noticeably. Hundt was impressed with the emerging Grand Alliance system – particularly its usage of a packetized data structure similar to those used in telecommunications sys- tems. A Grand Alliance HDTV receiver was a lot more like a computer than ear- lier HDTV receivers, as it had the ability to process a variety of video signals and to display both interlaced and progressive-scan images, The successful intro- duction of digital NTSC satellite services in the form of the Thomson/Hughes DirecTV or DSS services, using a direct broadcast satellite to deliver digitized signals to homes with small satellite dishes, satellite tuners, and regular NTSC televisions, may also have influenced Hundt’s change of perspective. The rapid consumer adoption of DBS services was eating into the audience share of both cable operators and terrestrial broadcasters, thanks to the very high quality of the images and the large number of channels available on DBS services. Many of the successful satellite and cable channels in Europe and Asia also relied on digitized signals, especially for pay-TV channels where encryption was neces- sary to exclude non-subscribers from receiving the signal. On 12 September 1995, the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Senator Larry Pressler (R-South Dakota), unveiled a plan to auction off HDTV and other advanced TV spectrum in the largest 25 television markets. According to Pressler, the auction would raise more than $14 billion, which Pressler wanted to use to establish a trust fund for public broadcasting. Federal fund- ing for NPR and PBS was under attack from the new Republican majority in Congress. The National Association of Broadcasters immediately criticized the plan and announced that they would oppose it. Pressler dropped his proposal on 28 September. Debates over the desirability of spectrum auctions continued, however (see section below on round two of the auctions debate). The FCC issued a request for comments on the issue. The due date for comments was 18 October 1995. FCC replies were due 1 December 1995. Larry Irving of the NTIA continued to favour an auction. So did the Benton Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, and Thomas Hazlett, an economist and an expert on telecommunications policy. In early December, the Clinton administration floated a proposal for the auctioning of HDTV spectrum to create a fund for subsidizing consumer purchases of digital TV converters. The proposal called for a subsidy of around $50 per consumer. The NAB and MSTV again objected to the idea of auc- tions and Irving’s idea was strongly opposed by an FCC official on a televised debate. Nothing more of substance on auctions appeared until the middle of the 1996 election campaign.


On 28 November 1995, ACATS made its final recommendations to the FCC on the HDTV standard, based on the laboratory and field-testing of the digital Grand Alliance system. ACATS reported that each of the six formats proposed for the HDTV system (see Table 2) exceeded targets established for static and dynamic luminance and chrominance resolution. ACATS ruled that the MPEG-2 compression system was superior to the four original ATV video compression systems and it selected the Dolby AC-3 audio system as superior to competing systems, including DTS (a digital sound system engineered by Lucasfilm with some Microsoft backing that was already in use in movie theatres). According to

Jeffrey A. Hart

Vertical pixels by horizontal lines

Aspect ratio

Frame rates


x 1080


60i, 30p, 24p


x 720


60p, 30p, 24p


x 480


60i, 60p, 30p, 24p



x 480


Note: In the frame rates column, ‘p’ designates a progressively scanned and ‘I’ an interlaced image format. Source: Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 96–207, Federal Communications Commission, MM Docket No. 87–268, adopted May 9, 1996, p. 4.

Table 2: Eighteen video formats in the ATSC DTV standard, May 1996.

ACATS, the Grand Alliance’s packetized data transport subsystem performed well, and appeared to be compatible with Asynchronous Transport Mode (ATM) telecommunications technologies. Finally, ACATS selected Zenith’s VSB (vestigial sideband) transmission system rather than QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) or COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency division multiplex) as the best method for assuring high-quality terrestrial over-the-air and cable transmission. The system recommended by ACATS to the FCC had been vetted earlier to the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). The ATSC was asked by ACATS to determine which aspects of the Grand Alliance system required action by the FCC in the form of mandatory standards and which should be voluntary. The ATSC divided into five groups of specialists and proceeded to recommend mandatory standards in five areas: video; audio; transport; RF/ Transmission; receiver characteristics. For this reason, the ACATS recommen- dations presented to the FCC in November 1995 were later referred to as the ‘ATSC DTV Standard’ (FCC 1996b). The National Association of Broadcasters announced that they would not oppose the adoption of the ACATS recommendations by the FCC, but were concerned about requirements to broadcast HDTV signals. As before, they worried out loud about the expense of equipping stations for HDTV broad- casting and their ability to obtain new revenues to offset these expenses. They continued to argue for the benefits of multicasting NTSC signals instead of moving to HDTV. John Abel, recently retired from the NAB, said: ‘Consumers have always gone for more video choices rather than higher video quality’. CBS lobbyist Marty Franks said that there was ‘no evidence that the public, if presented with one great picture or five pretty good ones, will pick just the one great one’. Some local broadcasters disagreed, arguing that multicasting would only further fragment audiences and thereby reduce advertising rev- enues. Phil Jones, President of Meredith Broadcasting in Des Moines, Iowa, said ‘People are smoking something funny if they think [multicasting] is good for local broadcasters’. On 12 December 1995, the FCC held en banc hearings on advanced TV systems. At those hearings, FCC Chairman Hundt said that Congress, not the

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

FCC, would decide whether the spectrum needed for HDTV broadcasts would be auctioned, but that the FCC would still decide whether licensees were required to use their new spectrum for HDTV broadcasts. He also argued that broadcasters might be required to provide ‘public services’ in exchange for the privilege of licensing the new spectrum. Hundt raised the question of the degree to which the regulatory structure already in use for NTSC broadcasting would translate into an appropriate structure for the new digital broadcasting system. He left this issue open for future discussion and deliberation. At the 12 December hearings, Bruce M. Allan, Senior Vice President for Business Development at Thomson Consumer Electronics, urged the FCC to give prompt approval for the Grand Alliance digital system. Allan argued that ‘consumers are ready for the superior pictures and sound of digital TV’. The Advanced Television (ATV) Task Force of the Electronic Industries Association (which became the Consumer Electronics Association in 1999), an organiza- tion that primarily represented the manufacturers of consumer electronics equipment, agreed with Bruce Allan. Also at the 12 December hearings, a new organization called the Computer Industry Coalition on Advanced Television Services (CICATS), represented by Joseph Tasker of Compaq Corporation, argued for abandonment of the inter- laced video format. Tasker warned that:

Unless the deficits of the proposed standards are remedied, the poten-

tial of the technology revolution will be stifled at birth

fail to live up to its potential, but will instead remain simply a vehicle for entertainment, news, documentaries, and advertisements.

Television will

The members of CICATS at this time were: Apple, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Silicon Graphics, and Tandem Computers. CICATS was to lead the fight in 1996 to alter the Grand Alliance system prior to its acceptance by the FCC, focusing particularly on the question of requir- ing equipment manufacturers to support both progressive-scan and interlaced video formats in HDTV receivers. CICATS took up many of the arguments first articulated by Michael Liebhold, but added a few new ones. More importantly, a wider variety of industry notables stepped forward as advocates of the compu- ter industry position, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and Andy Grove of Intel, leaders of the emerging Wintel (Windows and Intel) coalition that was already setting de facto microprocessor and operating system standards for desktop and laptop computers worldwide. They also managed to get the support of a number of Hollywood directors, producers, and actors for their views on HDTV. At the same time, the cost for broadcasters of converting to HDTV transmission, the idea of auctioning spectrum instead of loaning it to broadcasters, and the right of broadcasters to choose NTSC multicasting instead of HDTV broadcast- ing for their ‘second channel’ all remained contentious issues. From this point on, most people began to speak about digital television (DTV) or advanced television (ATV) instead of HDTV. The Grand Alliance system (also called the ACATS or ATSC DTV system) was more than a HDTV system because of its adoption of a packetized digital transport system and internationally accepted compression standards like MPEG-2. Now it was possible to think about flexibly combining both high and low resolution video (and other kinds of digital information) on the same channels using ‘smart’ television receivers. It was also possible to think of DTV as permitting both passive and interactive video applications.

Jeffrey A. Hart

Congress, the White House and the FCC began talking about an acceler- ated transition to DTV of seven years instead of the ten to fifteen years men- tioned earlier. This would speed up the return of the analogue channels to the FCC. The revenues obtained from auctioning that spectrum would then help to reduce the budgetary deficit a bit sooner than previously anticipated. FCC Commissioner James Quello objected to this policy shift because he thought that people would hang on to their NTSC sets for considerably longer than seven years and that they would be angry if they had to scrap them prema- turely (Van and Jones 1996). On 20 June 1996, at the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on HDTV standards, Chairman Hundt again endorsed the idea of auctioning spectrum. Dr Peter Bingham, President of Philips Research Laboratories, said that the spectrum auction hung ‘like a sword of Damocles over this digital revolution’. He argued that the auction would only produce a marginal improvement in deficit reduction but that it would certainly undermine the economic incen- tives for broadcasters to introduce digital television expeditiously. During the week of 22 July 1996, the House of Representatives was sched- uled to consider an amendment to the FY 1997 FCC appropriations bill pro- posed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) that would prohibit the FCC from assigning licenses for ATV services. This amendment was designed to stymie efforts by the FCC to allocate ATV channels at a meeting on 25 July. Apparently the FCC was planning to free up channels 2–6 and 52–69 for non- television uses. The FCC promptly received a letter from the three major net- works, ALTV, MSTV, NAB, Chris-Craft and Tribune opposing this. Senator McClain used the occasion to lecture Chairman Hundt in a letter to ‘keep government intrusion to a minimum’ and avoid freezing innovation by setting inappropriate standards. Nevertheless, the FCC voted to announce its inten- tion to allocate ATV channels at the 25 July meeting, although it left the deci- sion about what channels to allocate (and when) to a later time. The combined lobbying efforts of the members of CICATS apparently con- vinced President Clinton to take a stand. On 23 September 1996, in an inter- view with a reporter from Broadcasting and Cable magazine, Clinton weighed in on the side of digital convergence:

The best standard would be one developed and supported by all the

affected industries, which could then be endorsed by the FCC

want to make sure that there are no roadblocks to future compatibility between televisions and computers.


(Corcoran 1997)

Accordingly, on 24 October 1996, Commissioner Susan Ness sent a let- ter to the Broadcasters Caucus, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association and CICATS urging them to seek a consensus on DTV standards by 25 November. A series of intensive negotiations ensued; this resulted, ulti- mately, in a compromise to modify the ATSC DTV standard by removing the requirement that DTV receivers display all eighteen video formats in Table 2 and leaving it instead to each equipment manufacturer to decide how to display all the formats, even though they were required to decode all of them. Thus a small and less expensive ATSC compatible TV might be able to decode a 1080p signal but might (at the option of the manufacturer) display it as if it were a 480i signal. This compromise, in effect, recognized the split between computer and consumer electronics firms over interlaced formats and allowed

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

them to pursue their own strategies. It also helped to smooth over the conflict between the broadcasters and the set manufacturers, since few broadcasters at the time wanted to be forced to broadcast HDTV formats such as 720p and 1080p. The set manufacturers thought that it would be difficult to sell new sets if they were limited to displaying standard definition video. A letter docu- menting the compromise was signed on 27 November 1996, in Washington by Michael Sherlock of NBC, representing the Broadcasters Caucus, Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association, and Paul Misener of Intel representing CICATS. This cleared the way for the FCC to issue its decisions on DTV without fear of further reprisals from the computer industry.


On 27 December 1996 the FCC released its Fourth Order and Report accept- ing the recommendation of ACATS to adopt a modified version of the ATSC standard for digital television in the United States (FCC 1996b). The decision was strongly praised by the broadcasting and consumer electronics firms and their representatives. The computer industry and particularly the members of CICATS also expressed satisfaction with the outcome. Media coverage of the DTV decision began to emphasize some of the problems that conversion to DTV broadcasting would create for the smaller terrestrial broadcasters, con- sumer electronics retailers, and owners of NTSC receivers. The FCC turned to the question of how to allocate the channels it would loan to broadcasters for the transition to DTV. In 1997, the FCC issued its Fifth and Sixth Report Orders and Reports in the US Advanced television proceedings. These documents spelled out in great detail the plans for allocating loaner channels to terrestrial broadcasters. The problems they had to solve had to do mainly with assuring existing broad- casters that their new digital channels would permit them to cover approxi- mately the same territory as their old analogue channels. In addition, many low-powered television (LPTV) broadcasters in rural or mountainous regions were acting as repeaters for nearby terrestrial broadcasters. These stations were low-budget affairs with just enough revenues from advertising to gener- ate a small profit. Such stations could not afford to quickly convert to digital broadcasting. Special provisions had to be made for them. A similar problem existed for public broadcasters, and they were granted more time to make the transition than commercial broadcasters. An important part of the 1997 decisions was the plan to recover for non- television uses 138 MHz of spectrum – 60 MHz immediately and 78 MHz within ten years. 60 MHz would come from the former television channels 60 to 69 in the VHF band, which would no longer be reserved for television broadcasts (these channels were only infrequently used anyway, and then only in the most crowded urban areas). When the transition to DTV ended in 2006, all the NTSC channels would be returned to the FCC, which would make an additional 78 MHz of spectrum available. The recovered spectrum would be auctioned or otherwise allocated to licensees for various purposes. In the Sixth Report, the FCC committed itself to allocate 24 MHz of recovered spectrum in the VHF band for police and public safety purposes. The idea of auctioning spectrum sooner rather than later was particularly appealing to the Clinton administration, which at the time was looking for a way to guarantee further reductions in the deficit before 2002. Hence, one initiative undertaken by Chairman Hundt was to try to get the broadcasters

Jeffrey A. Hart

in the largest urban media markets to accelerate their deployment of DTV. Instead of a transition period of ten years, he pushed the broadcasters to do it in two years. This generated great resistance on their part, but in the end the broadcasters committed themselves to a two-year transition in some major markets and a three-year transition in others. Finally, an important aspect of the April 1997 decision was to reaffirm the earlier decision to allow broadcasters to choose between HDTV broadcasting and SDTV multiplexing, and between passive and interactive services, on their digital channels. Commissioner Hundt thought this proved that the FCC had embraced a ‘market orientation’ that would give ‘broadcasters the flexibility to use the spectrum to respond to market opportunities’ (FCC 1997: 1). Hundt’s efforts to link the DTV spectrum allocation to new commitments on the part of broadcasters for public service announcements and children’s broadcasting resulted in the appointment of a special commission to consider the matter. For a year or so after the 1997 decision, manufacturers were concerned about a challenge by Sinclair Broadcasting to the FCC decision to require transmission of DTV signals using vestigial sideband (VSB) modulation instead of Sinclair’s favoured coded orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (COFDM). Sinclair filed a petition before the FCC for a reconsideration that was only finally rejected in February 2000. During the interim, broadcasters and equipment manufactur- ers were in limbo waiting for a resolution of this issue. In 1993, the US debate on digital television focused on the feasibility of a unified Grand Alliance approach. After 1997 the debate shifted away from a focus on television per se toward a consideration of the broader implications of digital television for the future of the American broadcasting and electron- ics manufacturing industries. The increased importance of the Internet and the World Wide Web, particularly for the Clinton administration, but also for key players like Compaq, Intel and Microsoft, had made a big difference in the level of attention given to HDTV and digital television by major political forces in the country. The Grand Alliance and ATSC approach had helped to focus the attention of these other players on the DTV issue by adopting dig- ital packetization and transport schemes that were consistent with the idea of digital convergence but deviated from that ideal by forcing manufacturers to make more expensive DTV receivers and set-top boxes in order to satisfy the concerns of their coalition partners. The Chairman of the FCC, Reed Hundt, and Commissioner Susan Ness played a crucial role in forcing the members of the Grand Alliance coalition to compromise with the ‘johnny-come-latelys’ of the computer industry, but in doing so they were simply reflecting the ability of the computer industry to generate support at high levels in a White House that had already tilted in their direction on a number of other occasions. Efforts on the part of mem- bers of Congress, even presidential candidates like Bob Dole, to force the FCC to auction DTV spectrum came to naught. Congress was split on this issue, with Senators Dole and McCain countered by Senators Coats and Stevens. Congress was also split on whether to support the TV broadcasters and man- ufacturers or the computer industry at various points in the debate. The FCC normally leans in the direction of TV interests because of the way in which commissioners are recruited and selected, but in this case that did not occur because the Chairman confronted a divided Congress and a White House eager to placate the computer industry. The result was a compromise standard that reduced uncertainty about the future of digital television considerably but did not eliminate it.

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

The US was the first to opt for all-digital as opposed to a hybrid digital- analogue standard. The US government, unlike those in Europe and Japan, did not support standards put forward by a coalition of consumer electronics manufacturers and broadcasters. US regulatory institutions were sensitive to a number of issues that were ignored elsewhere, such as the cost to consumers of purchasing new equipment and the need to promote continued innova- tion in digital technologies. On the negative side, the final US government decisions on DTV standards resulted in considerable confusion on the part of manufacturers, broadcasters, and consumers. Coping with that confusion and dealing with the inability, or reluctance, of some broadcasters and customers to pay for new DTV equipment became the key challenge of completing the transition to digital television in the US.


The key DTV decisions by the FCC in the 1990s guaranteed that there would be confusion in the marketplace of DTV equipment and services. No specific format for encoding or delivering DTV signals over the air was mandated. Broadcasters and manufacturers were left to figure out what types of signals customers would be willing to pay for at premium DTV prices. So, for example, some over-the-air broadcasters decided not to use their DTV channels to broadcast in high definition. Instead they experimented with multicasting: the use of a single channel to broadcast a number of standard definition (480i) DTV signals. This meant that the broadcaster was using the allocated spectrum to become a sort of mini-cable operator. The bet was that the customer would be willing to pay for more choice in programming (but not for higher picture quality). Other over-the-air broadcasters were betting that customers would be will- ing to pay for better picture quality, but they disagreed on what quality incre- ment was required. The standards debates leading up to the FCC decisions of the 1990s identified a range of choices for picture and signal formats. The ones that emerged with substantial corporate backing were 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p. The number in the number/letter combination stands for the number of scanning lines per image. The small letter ‘p’ stands for progressive scanning; the small letter ‘i’ stands for interlaced scanning. Interlaced scanning involves the sending of every other line in an image in one burst followed by the send- ing of the rest of the lines in the next burst and so on. Interlacing was invented in the early days of monochrome TV broadcasting to conserve spectrum. All standard definition televisions use interlacing. Progressive scanning involves the sending of all the lines in an image in one burst (not two). All compu- ter monitors, unlike standard definition TVs, use progressive scanning. While progressive scanning is less conserving of spectrum, it has the advantage of eliminating certain visual artefacts in the final image like ‘flicker’. Progressive scanning is better for the display of text information than interlacing. 480p provides a progressively scanned digital version of a standard defini- tion TV image. It is the cheapest to provide but does not provide as large an increment in picture quality as the other alternatives. 480p is the format of choice for broadcasters who chose the multicasting option. 720p provides a higher quality image than 480p and possibly as high image quality as 1080i because it is progressive. ABC, NBC, and their affili- ates opted for 720p and made major investments in production facilities for broadcasting in this format. They focused initially on converting broadcasts of sporting events to 720p.

Jeffrey A. Hart

1080i was the choice of CBS and its affiliates because of their strong belief that 720p did not provide a high enough quality increment over standard definition analogue TV to make consumers willing to pay the premium for DTV signals. Their preference for interlacing was partly the result of the relationship between CBS and Sony, in which the latter provided 1080i equipment to the former. CBS also had allies in the film industry, including Sony Pictures (formerly Columbia Pictures), who swore by 1080i as a better format in which to view movies. 1080p had the least support of the main alternative formats because it was the most expensive to produce and display. Some of the technological compo- nents necessary to produce content in that format were still not widely avail- able in 2005. Nevertheless, all the chips that were in ATSC-compatible HDTV tuners (DTV tuners for short) were capable of decoding 1080p images and so some companies were betting that the higher picture quality of 1080p would eventually triumph over the other alternatives. To deal with the diversity of signal formats, the FCC mandated in 2002 the progressive phasing in of TV sets with DTV tuners, requiring that new sets with a given screen size, or larger, contain tuners. Here are the specific phase-in requirements:

Receivers with screen sizes 36 inches and above – 50% of a responsible party’s units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2004; 100% of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005. Receivers with screen sizes 25 to 35 inches – 50% of a responsible party’s units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005; 100% of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2006. Receivers with screen sizes 13 to 24 inches – 100% of all such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2007.

(FCC 2002)

By mid 2007, therefore, all new TV sets with 13-inch screens or larger would be required to have DTV tuners. In the meantime, consumers would continue to have to cope with com- plexity in stores where labelling of DTV sets and equipment includes such unfamiliar terms as HDTV-ready, HDTV-capable, HDTV-compatible, and HDTV-upgradeable. The sets themselves came in the following technological varieties: CRT (direct view), CRT-based projection, LCD flat panel, LCD pro- jection, DLP projection, and LCOS projection (I will not bother to explain the acronyms here). On the back of the receiver there were the following kinds of ‘secure’ DTV connectors: DVI, HDMI, and Broadcast Flag. There were also a variety of connectors for antennas, VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, set-top boxes, and other such devices. Customers would be asked if they wanted to get their sig- nal over the air, or via cable or satellite. If customers wanted to connect a DTV to a Windows Media Center personal computer, they would be in yet another vast new world of acronym-filled complexity. For the fanatics and insanely rich, there was the world of the ‘home theatre’ to master. The rich would sim- ply pay someone who knew enough about all this stuff to do it for them, but then they were left with the problem of figuring out how to make it all work the way it was supposed to.


The FCC DTV decisions of the 1990s resulted in the loaning of a second chan- nel to over-the-air broadcasters to use for converting to digital broadcasting

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

while continuing to provide analogue services. The FCC’s idea was that once the digital transition was complete the analogue channels would be returned to the government to dispose of as needed. The return of spectrum would permit the FCC to auction it off to the highest bidder, so the government had a strong incentive to get back all those old analogue TV channels as soon as possible. The revenues from auctions were already being included in esti- mates of future government revenues during the Clinton administration, so key members of the government were eager to push for the rapid completion of the digital transition. The problem was that the FCC and Congress had recognized that the ana- logue signals should not be shut off until a good percentage of consumers were receiving or at least able to receive digital broadcasts. In 1997, when the DTV transition plan was launched, Congress passed a ‘sense of Congress’ resolution as part of an intelligence reform act that stipulated that the spec- trum would be returned on 31 December 2006, but only if 85 per cent of the residents of any given local community had the necessary equipment to dis- play digital signals. The interpretation of this somewhat vague rule would be left to the FCC. Less than three percent of American homes had sets capable of decod- ing DTV signals as of early 2005, although a much larger percentage, perhaps more than 80 per cent, received TV signals in digital formats from either cable or satellite services and the 2006 deadline was fast approaching. The sales of such sets were growing rapidly, especially as lower cost DTVs started to be featured in the major consumer stores. The number of cable and satellite services offering HDTV-quality signals was also growing rapidly. In 2006, the prices of flat panel plasma TVs were expected to continue to descend below the current average price of around $2,000, especially as the larger LCD TVs also were expected to decline in price from the current $2,000 average to around $1,000. An additional problem, highlighted by outgoing FCC Commissioner Michael Powell was that many households possessed more than one TV, but were not likely to be receiving digital signals on every set they own. Also, a number of over-the-air broadcasters failed to comply with FCC orders to begin broadcasting in DTV formats, so households with DTV sets in those localities but without cable or satellite services would obviously not be able to contribute to meeting the 85 per cent goal. As a result, the FCC, in its desire to get the spectrum back sooner rather than later, proposed a new deadline of 31 December 2008 and an easier test of the ability of households to decode DTV signals: i.e., that the use of cable or satellite services where the service provides a digital signal either to a set- top box, or, even less ambitiously, to a nearby connection point, would count toward the 85 per cent goal. If the household opted not to purchase a DTV set, therefore, it might still enjoy TV broadcasts if it either purchased or was given a box to convert the DTV signal to a standard definition analogue sig- nal. All cable subscribers qualified as DTV-ready households by that standard. Problem of rapid transition solved! That proposal, engineered in January 2005 by Kenneth Ferree, the Chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, had not been approved as of February 2005 (Ferree 2004). Ferree left the FCC soon after making the proposal. The plan was strongly opposed by NAB, whose members were not in a hurry to return their analogue channels to the federal government. They claimed that to meet the 85 per cent goal, 73 million sets not connected to a cable or satellite service would

Jeffrey A. Hart

have to be fitted with a converter at an estimated cost of around $300 per unit (at a total estimated cost of $22 billion). It should not come as a surprise that the $300 price tag given by the NAB was contested. Motorola Corporation, for example, estimated the boxes could be produced in high volume for between $50 and $75 per unit. Motorola and other electronics manufacturers like Intel were interested in seeing the analogue spectrum returned and auctioned off for new wireless uses. The important underlying issue, however, was that the shutting off of the analogue signals would greatly inconvenience millions of TV watchers, who either could not afford or were not willing to purchase the necessary convert- ers and therefore raised the question of whether there needed to be govern- ment subsidies to allow these individuals to continue using their analogue equipment (Brinkley 2005).


Another difficult question was how to set the rules for the relationships between over-the-air broadcasters and cable and satellite service providers during and after the transition. Cable operators were bound by ‘must carry’ rules that impelled them to give their customers access to the analogue signals of local over-the-air broadcasters via the cable service. The cable operators did not get paid for this service, even though the local broadcasters continued to receive advertising revenues based on the audience (cable plus non-cable) that their signal could reach. This really irritated the cable operators so they looked for ways to get compensated for carrying the signals of local broad- casters on increasingly scarce cable bandwidth. No such must carry rules gov- erned the relationship between local over-the-air broadcasters and satellite service providers. Cable operators – led by Ted Turner initially – challenged the ‘must carry’ rules on constitutional grounds as a violation of their right to free speech, but ultimately lost this battle in the Supreme Court. They insisted that they could not be forced to carry digital signals the way they had been forced to carry analogue ones, especially multicasts, because this violated the intention of policy makers to promote a higher quality of broadcasts not simply a prolifer- ation of channels. They wanted over-the-air broadcasters and cable network programmers to compete on an equal basis for cable bandwidth and obvi- ously to pay for carriage, and they wanted local cable operators to have full control over the programming packages offered to cable customers in their service area. Cable companies particularly objected to efforts of broadcasters to get compensation for providing DTV signals for carriage by cable opera- tors (especially HDTV coverage of popular sporting events). A spokesman for Time Warner Cable, Keith Cocozza, said ‘The issue at heart is that broadcast- ers are trying to insist that they are compensated for something that they get from the government for free’ (Walker 2005). What the local broadcasters wanted was for both cable and satellite to be bound by ‘must carry’ rules for digital signals, especially those who had already invested in multicast technology (e.g. Belo). They also wanted the cable operators to pay them for carrying their content on cable networks. The DTV decisions of the 1990s gave the local broadcasters the right to use their digital channel either for HDTV or for other purposes including multicast- ing. Some broadcasting networks opted for multicasting, thus defining the choice for their local affiliates. The problem was that the cable companies did

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

not want to carry the multicasts, which they saw as direct competition. They wanted to be compensated for whatever they decided to carry. In short, disa- greements over these matters were blocking cable carriage not just of multi- casts but also of local- and network-produced HDTV-quality digital signals (Cotlar 2005; Frieden 2005–2006).


Related closely to the must carry controversy was the question of what sorts of equipment consumers had to purchase or rent from cable operators in order to display DTV signals on their televisions. The decision of the FCC to mandate the inclusion of DTV tuners in new televisions meant that after 2007 it would not be necessary to include DTV tuners in the set-top boxes sold or rented to cable subscribers. Nevertheless, the cable operators continued to insist that

they had the right to sell or rent set-top boxes because of the interactive (two- way) services they wanted to provide – such as pay-per-view, virtual digital video recorders, or electronic programme guides – that went beyond the one- way service of decoding DTV signals. In the interest of saving consumers unnecessary expense and clutter, the FCC ordered in October 2003 that televisions that were ‘Digital Cable Ready’ should be labelled as such and that the two stakeholders (set manufacturers and cable operators) should work together to ensure that televisions so labelled would be compatible with cable services and equipment (FCC 2003). The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) issued a Memorandum of Understanding in December

2002 calling for a ‘plug and play’ format for one-way signals from cable to

DTV sets. Thus, to some extent, the later FCC order was an endorsement of

the earlier CEA/NCTA agreement and a plea for further negotiations. The two industries were urged to go beyond the one-way plug and play agreement to negotiate a similar one for two-way interactive services. One of the near-term consequences of the Digital Cable Ready Order of

2003 was the development of the ‘CableCard’ system. The CableCard was a

card-shaped object that plugged into a socket in a Digital Cable Ready TV that gave the consumer access to the cable services of a specific cable pro-

vider. The primary function of the CableCard was to assure that only paying customers got access, but a secondary and quite valuable function was to do

this in a way that did not require the purchase or rental of a set-top box with

a redundant DTV tuner. The CableCard system was similar to one developed for the DVB standard in Western Europe. From the consumer standpoint, not having to have multi-

ple set-top boxes when subscribing to more than one service or to buy or rent

a new box when changing services made a lot of sense. This decision, in short,

assured that there would be lower switching costs for consumers and lower barriers to entry for potential competitors in local DTV cable service markets. The cable operators resisted the CableCard initially because they thought

it would reduce their ability to realize the revenues associated with proprietary

features they planned to build into their next-generation set-top boxes. The set manufacturers worried that the increased cost of including a DTV tuner in sets would have to be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices and that higher prices would reduce or delay DTV sales. Another disadvan- tage mentioned by critics of the CableCard decision was that some equipment purchased before the decision, like digital video recorders, might not work

Jeffrey A. Hart

with Digital Cable Ready televisions. The FCC held firm on both the Digital Cable Ready and ‘plug and play’ decisions, however, and both set manufac- turers and cable operators began to plan their next moves accordingly.


Under the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, Congress authorized the end of analogue broadcasting after 17 February 2009. Representative Joseph Barton (R-Texas), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, favoured 31 December 2006, as the deadline for the end of analogue broadcasts, but few other members of Congress thought this was realistic. The date chosen for the analogue switch off was 17 February 2009, so as to occur after the end of TV coverage of the Super Bowl. After the analogue switch off, the FCC would reallocate channels 52 through 69 for other forms of telecommunications. These channels were auctioned off in early 2008 for a sum of approximately $20 billion. Most of the successful bidders were companies hoping to offer new or expanded commer- cial wireless services. Four channels, 60, 61, 68, and 69, would be reserved for use by first responders (e.g., policy, fire, and emergency rescue services). Besides setting a ‘date certain’ for the end of analogue, the bill also estab- lished a federally funded programme to provide coupons to consumers for the purchase of converter boxes for their analogue televisions. The value of the coupon was not to exceed $40 and each household would be limited to two coupons. The converter boxes would allow them to convert over-the-air digital broadcasts into analogue signals that could be displayed on those sets. The converter-box coupon programme was to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA). Democrats called for the funding to be at least $3 billion, but Republicans were opposed to that amount and the two parties finally arrived a compromise level of $890 million (22.25 million coupons), plus $100 million for administration. There was an option in the bill to allow the funding to grow to $1.34 billion (33.5 million coupons). In April 2007, the FCC adopted labelling requirements so that sellers of analogue TVs would be required to tell consumers that they would need to purchase converter boxes for the TVs after the analogue switch off. In July 2007, the FCC proposed a rule to require television broadcasters to conduct on-air consumer education efforts. Members of the National Association of Broadcasters claimed to have spent $1.2 billion on this effort (NAB 2009). Critics argued that too many consumers would be surprised and upset after the switch off when their old analogue TVs displayed a blank screen. Democratic members of Congress were particularly critical of the current Chair of the FCC, Kevin Martin, not just for the decisions regarding the DTV transition but also for other policies. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study that was highly critical of the converter-box coupon programme, focusing particularly on the level of funding (Goldstein 2008). The converter-box coupon programme actually began on 1 January 2008. Two weeks later, the NTIA gave its approval for coupons to be used to pay for nineteen specific converter boxes. In January 2008, Nielsen reported that there were 13 million households that were not ready for the DTV transition or about 10.1 per cent of all households. To be included in this count, the household had to be dependent primarily on over-the-air broadcasts for a television that was not capable of decoding digital signals (i.e. an analogue TV without a converter box attached). By the end of 2008, 40 million coupons had

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

been requested but only 16 million had been redeemed. Nielsen estimated that 7.8 million households (6.8 per cent) were still completely unready for the transition.


Just after the election, the Obama-Biden transition team urged the passage of the Short-term Analogue Flash and Emergency Readiness (SAFER) Act of

2008. The purpose of this legislation, which was also called the ‘DTV night-

light bill’, was to provide transition information to consumers who had not purchased DTV receivers and who still depended on over-the-air broadcasts via a short-term continuation of analogue broadcasts after the switch off date. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) introduced the bill in the Senate on 1 October

2008. The Senate passed the bill on 20 November, the House approved its

own version on 10 December, and President Bush signed it into law on 23 December (Reardon 2009a). Responding to criticisms about the NTIA’s administration of the DTV converter-box coupon programme, the Obama transition team began to sug- gest that new funding for the programme could be made available shortly after the inauguration, perhaps as part of the stimulus package that would be needed to deal with the threat of a long and deep recession. The NTIA stopped providing coupons on 5 January 2009, when the funding for the programme ran out. Even though many people who had received coupons failed to redeem them before they expired (one month after the issue date), the NTIA had been told by Republican Congressional leaders not to issue new coupons (Eggerton 2009). On 8 January 2009, John Podesta, Co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition team, wrote a letter to Congress requesting a delay in the analogue switch off until June. The letter explained that this was necessary because of problems with the converter-box coupon programme and insufficient support for low income, rural, and elderly Americans (Podesta 2009). The delay was supported by the Consumers Union, the Government Accountability Office, a number of mostly Democratic members of Congress, and the two Democratic members of the FCC (Michael J. Copps and Jonathan Adelstein). AT&T and Verizon supported the delay despite the fact that they got a major portion of the reallocated spectrum because they had an interest in setting back the date of entry into cell phone markets of competitors like Qualcomm. The delay was opposed by Qualcomm, Kevin Martin of the FCC, several Republican members of Congress, David Rehr of the NAB, Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also opposed the delay because they wanted to start using (for public safety purposes) the spectrum that would be freed up after the analogue switch off. On 21 January 2009, Jay Rockefeller introduced the DTV Delay Act of 2009 in the Senate. The Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill, but the House failed to approve its version of the bill on 28 January. The problem was that the desire of the new administration to expedite approval meant that a 2/3 majority was required for passage and not enough Republicans in the House supported the delay. Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) led the opposition. A new version of the bill came up again in the Senate on 29 January and passed easily. On 4 February, the House approved the bill. President Obama signed it into law on 11 February, with the understanding that the major networks and their affiliates asked to be permitted to go ahead with

Jeffrey A. Hart

the transition as originally planned on 17 February. During the signing cere- mony, Obama said ‘Millions of Americans, including those in our most vul- nerable communities, would have been left in the dark if the conversion had gone on as planned (Hart and Whoriskey 2009)’. On 20 February 2009, the FCC released an order stating that stations that wished to cease analogue transmissions before the new 12 June deadline could do so if they informed the FCC of their decision by 17 March 2009. The FCC wanted to make sure that each metropolitan area had at least one analogue broadcaster until 12 June. About half of the 1,787 full-power stations in the US switched over to digital prior to 12 June (Cheney 2009).


On Friday, 12 June 2009, the analogue switch off finally occurred. It had been over twelve years since the FCC had announced its DTV standards decisions. Although the FCC received 317,000 calls from consumers on that day, con- sumers had to wait an average of only five minutes to get their questions answered. Most of the questions concerned how to operate converter boxes, but a large proportion of them also dealt with problems with antennas. 59 million coupons for converter boxes had been distributed and 31 million had been redeemed. The FCC had set up 600 walk-in centres for people who wanted hands-on assistance. Various community-based organizations volun- teered to help indigent and elderly citizens install converter boxes and anten- nas (Sturgeon 2009). Less than 2.5% of households (roughly 3 million) were still unready for the transition (see Table 3) according to Nielsen, down from over 5% in February, so it is clear that the delay had eased the transition.




December 2008



January 2009



February 2009



February 2009



March 2009



March 2009



March 2009



April 2009



April 2009



May 2009



May 2009



June 2009


Source: The Nielsen company.

Table 3: Percentage of households completely unready for the DTV transition.

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

Commissioner Adelstein went so far as to say that ‘The digital transition is looking more like Y2K than the Bay of Pigs’ (Reardon 2009b).


There is certainly much to criticize about the handling of the DTV transition in the US. The original standards decisions resulted in confusing choices for both producers and consumers. Broadcasters were not required (as in other countries) to use their digital channels for HDTV and many chose to use them instead for multicasting. No clear must-carry rules were provided to cable and satellite operators until rather late in the game. The FCC’s CableCard deci- sions simply added expense to receivers without helping consumers because the cable companies insisted on providing their own set-top boxes with two- way capabilities. The FCC was slow to mandate an end to the production and sales of analogue TVs. The FCC relied too much on industry to educate con- sumers about the transition. The Republican-controlled Congress did not adequately fund the converter- box coupon programme and the NTIA was forced to end the distribution of coupons too early. Partisan politics played a large role in Congressional over- sight of the FCC and the NTIA. The Republicans, and especially the Republic appointees to the FCC, tended to favour the broadcasters and the consumer electronics manufacturers over consumer groups like the Consumers Union. Democrats and their appointees to the FCC were more concerned about con- sumers, minorities, the poor and the elderly, and less willing to follow the lead of broadcasters and equipment manufacturers. When Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2007–2008, his cam- paign took a relatively strong position on the DTV transition consistent with the views of influential Democrats like Ed Markey, John Dingell, and Jay

Rockefeller. After the 2008 election, the FCC, the Congress, and the White House arrived at a set of policies that helped to make the long-awaited transi- tion successful. Delaying the transition from February to June of 2009 helped to avoid major disruptions to the daily lives of citizens, while additional efforts undertaken by the FCC and the NTIA after the November elections to fix the converter-box coupon programme and educate consumers helped to reduce adjustment costs for the poor and the elderly. The US DTV transition was a large and complicated affair. One of the basic problems in digital transitions is the problem of properly timing the switching off of analogue. Doing it successfully depends on many uncertain and often unpredictable variables like the willingness and ability of consumers to purchase digital receivers or converter boxes or to subscribe to cable and satellite services. It also depends on the cost of equipment and services, which

is itself a function of many hard to predict variables. All of this occurs within

a broader social and political context where democratic partisanship and the

politics of social inequality can further complicate the transition. It is unlikely that digital transitions in other countries will be simpler. In wealthy democratic countries, there will generally be a combination of govern- mental mandates and reliance on the market and consumer choices. In poorer countries, authority may be more centralized in the government and consumer interests may be ignored, but at the expense of forcing consumers to pay for services that they may not be able to afford. Nevertheless, it is helpful to analyze carefully each transition as it comes along in the search for answers about how to do it better next time (see, for example, Galperin 2004; Block 2008).

Jeffrey A. Hart


Block, Joshua T. (2008), ‘Regulating the Transition from Analogue to Digital Television Broadcasting in North America: A Comparison of the Canadian, US., and Mexican Experiences’, Media Law and Policy, 17 (Spring), pp. 19–35.

Brinkley, Joel (1997), Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Brinkley, Joel (2005), ‘Defining Vision: The End is Nigh!’, Ultimate AV, February, Accessed 21 September


Carnevale, Mary Lu (1993), ‘FCC Panel Urges New Set of HDTV Tests’, Wall Street Journal, February 6, p. B7. Cheney, Suzanne (2009), ‘Digital TV Transition: Almost All Are Ready’,, 26 May, Accessed

21 September 2009.

Corcoran, Elizabeth (1997), A Bit of Bill in Every Box: Gates’s Vision of Microsoft’s Future Moves from PCs to TV, Phone, Washington Post,

10 August, p. H1.

Cotlar, Andrew D. (2005), ‘The Road Not Yet Traveled: Why the FCC Should Issue Digital Must-Carry Rules for Public Television “First”’, Federal Communications Law Journal, 57 (1), pp. 49–80. Eggerton, John (2009), ‘DTV Converter-Box Program Hits Ceiling’, Broadcasting & Cable, 5 January, Converter_Box_Program_Hits_Ceiling.php. Accessed 21 September 2009. Federal Communications Commission (1996a), Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, in MM Docket No. 87–268, FCC 96–207, adopted 9 May. Federal Communications Commission (1996b), Fourth Report and Order, Before the Federal Communications Commission, In the Matter of Advanced Television Systems and Their Impact Upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service, in MM Docket No. 87–268, FCC 96–493, adopted 24 December. Federal Communications Commission (1997), Statement of Chairman Reed Hundt on the Adoption of Television Allotment and Service Rules Reports and Orders, 3 April. Federal Communications Commission (2001), Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making in MM Docket No. 00–39, 16 FCC 01–24. Federal Communications Commission (2002), Second Report and Order and Second Memorandum Opinion and Order in MM Docket No. 00–39, FCC 02–030, adopted 8 August. Federal Communications Commission (2003), In the Matter of Implementation of Section 304 of the Communications Act of 1996; Commercial Availability of Navigation Devices; Compatibility between Cable Systems and Consumer Electronics Equipment, CS Docket No. 97–80 and PP Docket No. 00–97, released 9 October. Ferree, Kenneth W. (2004), Advancing the DTV Transition: An Examination of the FCC Media Bureau Proposal: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, 108th Congress, http://bulk.resource. org/ Accessed 21 September 2009. Frieden, Rob (2005–2006), Analogue and Digital Must-Carry Obligations of Cable and Satellite Television Operators in the United States, Media Law and Policy, 15 (2), pp. 230–246. Galperin, Hernan (2004), New Television, Old Politics: The Transition to Digital TV in the United States and Britain, New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Transition to Digital Television in the United States

Goldstein, Mark L. (2008), Digital Television Transition: Information on the Implementation of the Converter Box Subsidy Program and Consumer Participation in the Program, testimony before the House Subcommittee on

Telecommunications and the Internet, 16 September, Washington, D. C.:

Government Accountability Office. Hart, Jeffrey A. (2004), Technology, Television and Competition: The Politics of Digital TV, New York: Cambridge University Press. Hart, Kim and Whoriskey, Peter (2009), ‘Stalled Switch to Digital TV A Classic Tale of Breakdown’, Washington Post, 14 February, A01. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) (2009), ‘NAB CEO David Rehr:

Feb. 17 Digital TV Transition a Success’, NAB Press Release, 5 March, http:// Accessed 21 September 2009. Podesta, John (2009), ‘Letter to Senator Rockefeller and Representatives Hutchison, Waxman and Barton’, 8 January,–/ images/20090109_Podesta_DTV_letter.pdf. Accessed 21 September 2009. Reardon, Marguerite (2009a), ‘FCC: Some DTV Transition Hiccups Still Anticipated’,, 3 June,– 10256652–94.html. Accessed 21 September 2009. Reardon, Marguerite (2009b), ‘The Day after the DTV Transition’, CNET News,


June,–1035_3-10264369-94.html. Accessed


September 2009.

Sturgeon, Shane (2009), ‘1 Day and Counting – Joint FCC Commerce News Release’, HDTV Magazine, 12 June,


php. Accessed 21 September 2009. Sweet, William (1991), ‘Future of Electronics Companies at Stake in Development of New TV Systems’, Physics Today, 44 (3): p. 57. Van, John and Jones, Tim (1996), ‘Digital TV Promises an Unclear Revolution:

Among the Questions: Better Images, or More?’ Chicago Tribune, April 7, C1. Walker, Andrea K. (2005), Viewers in Search of HDTV Get Caught between Broadcasters, Cable Operators, Baltimore Sun, 28 January.


Hart, J. A. (2010), ‘The Transition to Digital Television in the United States:

The Endgame’, International Journal of Digital Television 1: 1, pp. 7–29, doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.7/1


Jeffrey A. Hart is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University where he teaches courses on international relations and international political econ- omy. His research focuses mostly on the politics of international competition in high technology industries. He is an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Digital Television. Fuller biographical details are given at the end of the journal.


JDTV 1 (1) pp. 31–50 Intellect Limited 2010

International Journal of Digital Television Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.31/1

JINNA TAY AND GRAEME TURNER University of Queensland, Australia

Not the Apocalypse:

Television Futures in the Digital Age



This article begins by challenging what we describe as a developing analytical ortho- doxy around the development of digital television, an orthodoxy which produces

digital television post-broadcast


story about the end of television. We argue that the social practice of television



far from over, and that it is changing in ways which reflect continuities with

past practices as well as the effects of emerging economic, technological and cultural formations of production and use. The article draws upon our research into some Asian television markets (part of a collaborative international research project on post-broadcast television) in order to highlight the contingency of these changes and thus the importance of a highly nuanced, locally grounded, and culturally informed analysis of what is becoming of television in the digital age. The article also draws attention to the current difficulties confronting such comparative analysis, in that we lack a common, simple and comprehensive means of measuring, benchmarking and mapping the various formations of what we still call ‘television’ around the globe.

convergence the end of television


The history of technological change warns us against attributing agency to emergent technologies; it also provides abundant evidence of the unreliability of the enthusiasm of the early adopters as a guide to mainstream patterns

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

of take-up. Histories of the mass media, in particular, tell us that while each emerging technology may initially shape up as if to challenge those already in place, it is rare for them to actually displace or render the existing technologies obsolete. Nonetheless, as each new technology emerges, they are inevitably accompanied by an ancillary industry of analysis and prognosis predicting the total collapse of nominated current technologies or markets as the result of the newcomer stealing their audiences. The predictions are rarely borne out; in many cases, both the technologies and their users end up behaving in totally unexpected ways. Video did not ‘kill the radio star’, after all, but the music industry is looming as an early casualty of the Internet’s emergence as an entertainment platform; music downloads and piracy are now threatening the viability of the local music store and the retail market for CDs. In this article, derived from a continuing study of post-broadcast televi- sion, we begin by challenging what we describe as a developing analytical orthodoxy around the development of digital television. We emphasize the need to recognize that the social practice of television is changing in highly contingent ways in specific markets – ways that reflect continuities with past practices as well as the effects of emerging economic and cultural formations of production and use. Our objective, pursued by drawing in particular on Asian examples from our collaboration on an international research project on post-broadcast television, is to highlight the unpredictability of these changes as well as the current difficulty in finding a simple and comprehensive means of measuring and mapping – and therefore of properly understanding – what is becoming of what we still call ‘television’.


It is not surprising that the rise of digital television should be accompanied by excitable accounts of technological change – from within the academy and the industry – which construct dramatic visions of the likely futures for tel- evision. The most common academic account comes from those we might call the ‘digital optimists’, who see the rise of digital television supplementing what they predict will be a fundamental shift in the focus of television produc- tion and consumption: that is, a shift that takes us away from the broadcast network and the television set in the living room and towards ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ (Rosen 2006) and the home computer. The prognoses of the digital optimists are closely aligned with those of the entre- preneurs and content producers within the media industries. They project a future in which an unprecedented degree of consumer access and content customization is set to dramatically change the nature of television content, as well as the manner in which it is consumed or produced. Worthwhile aspi- rations towards increased popular participation at the production end, and some form of democratization at the consumption end, are driving these accounts but they are, nonetheless, customarily enlisted into the service of a more commercial objective: that of generating a viable market for those who have invested in these new developments. The accounts of the digital optimists are, as it were, negatively reinforced by the views expressed by those we might describe as the ‘broadcast pes- simists’: those who see the declining share of (in particular) the US market now watching broadcast television as an incontrovertible sign of the immi- nent collapse of the broadcast platform altogether. There are certainly some

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

who argue against both of these positions (Turner and Tay 2009; Miller 2009), but at present it would have to be said that there remains a ‘digital orthodoxy’ (Turner 2009) which blends the accounts of the digital optimists and the broadcast pessimists into a highly influential diagnosis of what amounts to the declaration of the ‘end of television’. We do not accept that this diagnosis is sufficient and in what follows we outline some of the competing evidence which highlights the complexity and diversity of the international experience of the era of digital television. As a starting point, it is important to recognize how geographically specific the ‘end of television’ argument is. Once you look beyond North America, Europe, and certain Anglophone countries such as Australia and New Zealand, such an argument loses much of its claim to relevance; in most other locations (and remember, these include the largest television audience in the world, China), broadcast (let alone) television is far from experiencing decline. Athique (2009) argues that India, for instance, is only now entering its ‘age of television’, and its markets are dominated by broadcasting. We have noted elsewhere (Tay and Turner 2008) that a number of state reg- ulatory and policy regimes – for instance, those in the UK and Australia – have accepted a vision of the future of television that implicitly regards the American experience as an evolutionary model. That is, these regimes operate on the assumption that the stages through which the American market has evolved will be more or less replicated, over time, throughout the globe. We argue that there is every reason to question such an assumption; indeed, it might actually make more sense to regard the American market as significantly anomalous, rather than as standing in an exemplary relation to the rest of the global market. For example, it is important to recognize that there are particular aspects of the regulatory and market conditions in the US at present (as well as a number of other markets regulated towards the US model) which artificially appear to rein- force the end of television thesis: the national transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, for instance, does lend support to this position in various ways that mask its contingency. At the simplest level, the analogue switchover is regarded by many in the US as the final nail in the coffin for an ailing broadcasting indus- try. While this will not necessarily be the case, in fact (and there are convincing opposing arguments), the convergence of technologies further enabled by the

switch to digital has the capacity to blur the specificity of television over time and

is doing so, as we write, in a number of markets. More importantly, however, a

pattern is emerging in which the traditional broadcasters have approached the switch from analogue to digital with some trepidation – as the point at which

the clock starts to tick on their established business models. At the same time, convergent media proprietors have embraced this development as the moment when traditional television surrenders some of its commercial advantages. It is also important to highlight another consideration which seems to us to be especially relevant to academic debates within television and media studies at this conjuncture. Most of the information we receive about the application of new technologies, about their take-up among audiences and consumers, and about possible developments in the future, comes to us directly from the media industries – often through corporate press releases or other products of

a publicity and promotions process, as well as through more putatively grass-

roots platforms such as industry blogs or online newsletters. While there is certainly academic research in these areas, and while there has also been con- siderable academic input into the development and application of these new media technologies, at the moment we seem especially dependent upon the

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

information provided by industry sources because of the pace of technological change and the volatility of the market response. What has resulted from this

is an excessive reliance on what can only be called industry ‘spin’ – the release

of material for public consumption that serves commercial rather than neces- sarily informational objectives. People working in media studies have always known that the informa- tion released by media companies about new applications, audience figures

and the like, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. There will always be con- cerns about the reliability of such information in terms of its factual accuracy as well as its legitimacy as the expression of an industry view: mostly, we have regarded industry statements as first and foremost the promulgation of

a commercial view that supports particular and often temporally contingent

configurations of interests. However, it is notable that in relation to digital media, particularly for new and online applications, some of this fundamen- tal scepticism seems to have been set aside – perhaps due to an especially close alignment between the technological aspirations of early-adopting aca- demics and the cutting edge entrepreneurs in the new media fields. As a result, both media reporting and the academic take-up of industry spin has tended to be largely uncritical, if not entirely complicit with it, and thus risk reinforcing perceptions of major industrial shifts which do not exist or have yet to take place. An example of what we mean would be a 2007 report on IPTV take-up worldwide (Briel 2007), which headlined the figure of 13 per cent growth in total user numbers over the year and provided a list of the top IPTV countries. On the face of it, this is a dramatic result, but closer reading of the figures reveals that in many cases this is achieved off such a tiny base that, even with this level of growth, the proportion of those using IPTV in some of the leading countries is arguably negligible (see Table 1). In China, for instance, the figure after the 13% increase was a total of 720,000 – less than 1% of the total population of China. Hong Kong, the second largest market in the world for IPTV, is much more significant with 13% of the population taking up IPTV, but for all the other top six countries the total figure for IPTV take-up remains small when expressed as a percentage of the total population. It might be argued, nonetheless, that more recent figures indicate that IPTV has continued to grow at a rate that would justify the hyperbole used in this



% of total population


IPTV (‘000)


1. France




2. Hong Kong


7,000,000 (est.)


3. China




4. Spain




5. Japan




6. Taiwan




Source: Adapted from R. Briel (2007) with additional demographic information from Wikipedia.

Table 1: Uptake of IPTV Telco (2007).

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age







Total TV*

Asia Pacific







Europe – East







Europe – West







Latin America







Middle East@







North America














Source: Informa Telecoms and Media (2009). #homes not paying to receive cable, DTH or IPTV signals *includes digital and analogue homes @Israel and Turkey only

Table 2: Digital TV household composition in 2013 (million).

report. Certainly, the recent growth rates are even higher than those reported by Briel, according to the 2009 figures (Broadband Forum 2009); the year’s growth in Latin America and Eastern Europe, for instance, clocked in respec- tively at 109.85% and 109.38%. Again, however, the raw numbers encourage caution; in Latin America, the result of such a percentage increase is still only a total of 23,467 subscribers. An even more sober perspective, however, is gained when we look at Informa’s forecasts, which take us up to 2013 and predict that by then IPTV will still only account for 4% of global TV households. What this table suggests is that while IPTV may still continue to record what can be presented as impressive gains in percentage terms, the realistic expectation is that IPTV is destined to be only a niche delivery platform for TV in the future not, as the booster rhetoric would have it, the future of TV. It is probably worth emphasizing at this point that there is good reason to doubt even the raw figures provided by the media industries on new media audiences, let alone the implications that might be read from them. An exam- ple of this comes from the US Internet industry’s confusion over the vast disparity in the size of the audience attributed to online video site Hulu by competing ratings companies: in March 2009, Nielsen reported a total of 8.9 million visitors to the site, while comScore came up with 42 million. These dis- crepancies have provoked considerable controversy in the news media as well as in the industry but so far no satisfactory explanation has emerged, with both organizations defending their methods in the face of advertisers’ demands for more reliable figures (Stelter 2009). This dispute takes on added significance because the Internet industry has always claimed that online usage is more ‘measurable’ than television audiences and thus represents a more account- able platform for advertisers. They claim (though this can be challenged) that the hit rate provides direct evidence of consumption, for instance. The lesson seems to be that, with discrepancies so large and over such important consid- erations, and with the industry reports so strongly motivated by the need to boost markets, this is not the time to abandon our scepticism about the valid- ity and motivations of industry-sourced figures.

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

There is a larger question, of course, which we will return to later on, and which has to do with the difficulty of measuring and mapping the pro- duction and consumption of television around the globe. Each country has its own metrics: they are often out of phase with each other, they work with shifting and even conflicting or contradictory terminologies, and it is very difficult (often impossible) to make direct or benchmarked comparisons between the same kind of data, collected over the same period, with the same underlying assumptions. As we will point out throughout this arti- cle, even basic industrial terms (such as the version of ‘penetration’ used in Table 7) mean different things in different contexts and thus change pre- cisely what it is that is being measured.


We have to work with what is available, though, and notwithstanding the difficulties registered above, there is plenty of data available which should give pause to any apocalyptic predictions of the end of television. Even in the heartland of the end of television thesis, the US, the figures tell a differ- ent story. According to the May 2009 Nielsen ‘Three Screens’ survey (2009a) (Table 3), television viewing in the home grew by the same percentage (3.6%) over 2007/2008 as the total figure for Internet use (within which, remember, watching video online is a smaller subset.) Total US television viewing contin- ued to grow in the first quarter of 2009 (1.2%), although by a smaller amount than the use of the Internet (3.2%); television viewing figures would be further boosted if time-shifting viewing was added to the total figures for television

Monthly time spent in hours: Minutes per user 2+.

% Diff


Yr to Yr

Diff Yr



to Yr


(4Q08 to







Watching TV in the home*






Watching time-

shifted TV*






Using the







Watching video

on Internet**






Mobile sub- scribers watch- ing video on a mobile phone





Source: The Nielsen Company.

Table 3: Three Screens’ Survey 2009.

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

viewing in the home (time-shifting increased by 37.3% [!] over the first quarter of 2009) (Nielsen 2009b). It is true that the audience share for broadcast net- works compared to cable networks is steadily declining; nonetheless, certain broadcast events continue to demonstrate their capacity to draw a massive national television audience: the Obama presidential debates, for instance, drew figures that were comparable with those achieved during the Reagan campaign (Miller 2009) and they, in turn, constitute a historic peak. While the US networks have their difficulties, then, it is simply not the case that people are not watching as much television as before, or that they are demonstrating

a clear preference for watching television online via their computers. Of course, there is no doubt that television is mutating across platforms and the contexts through which it is consumed are multiplying. While this is the case, it would seem that, far from approaching its demise, television is alive and well. If we move away from the US example and look at some other large national markets and examine the mix of platforms, systems of delivery, and audience preferences in play we begin to get a more nuanced sense of the sheer diversity of the ways in which the futures of broadcast, pay, and online video play out in different nation-states and geo-linguistic regional markets. An Australian report from 2008, for instance, found that 42% of its respond- ents said they watched less TV as a result of being connected to the Internet, while 54% said there was no change in their behaviour (Ewing, Thomas and Schiessl 2008). This report, it should be noted, is based on what the respond- ents said about their behaviours, rather than the kind of electronic monitoring of actual behaviour that a people meter provides.


In the research project from which this article derives, we have examined aspects of the broadcast, pay, and online video audience take-up and modes

of consumption in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The television audience has been steadily expanding due to the uptake of cable and IPTV subscribers across at least three of the four markets; namely China, Hong Kong and Singapore, with Taiwan at almost its saturation point for cable television (90 per cent). Broadcast remains a major player, however. In the Chinese geo- linguistic markets of Hong Kong and Singapore, broadcasters have dominated since television began and that has not changed significantly in recent years. The local broadcast television stations, TVB (Hong Kong) and Mediacorp (Singapore), are strong producers of local content. Hong Kong has been the leading television serial producer for both Hong Kong and the Chinese geo- linguistic region generally for decades (Curtin 2007). Many of TVB’s serials have attracted popular followings in Taiwan, China, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. Broadcast television in Hong Kong is virtually universally accessi- ble but pay TV subscribers have been increasing; in the period 2007-2008, the proportion of the market subscribing to pay TV increased by 10% from 79.3% to 89%. There are reports of audience migrations from TVB’s Jade (though it

is still the most popular channel), which suggests a gradual shift in the prefer-

ences of the Hong Kong audience (Broadcasting Authority HK 2007a). In Singapore, Channel 8 (a Mandarin broadcast channel) has enjoyed a popular following since the 1980s through its news and Singaporean-based television series such as The Awakening, Samsui Women and Army Daze. Channel 8’s dominance has its roots in the 80 per cent of the population that is of Chinese ethnicity. Notwithstanding this audience advantage, the

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

evidence points to a gradual shrinking of the broadcast television share in Singapore of about two per cent per year since 2004; there has been a cor- responding increase to cable television’s market share (MDA 2006). In Hong Kong and Singapore, then, broadcast television is certainly challenged by the competing platforms but it is not in dramatic decline. Indeed, the expansion and uptake of cable and Internet television means that, overall, there are more people watching television now (and for longer) than ever before. This trend may well continue. In their pursuit of a greater market share, cable television in Hong Kong has introduced price segmentation for different urban areas in Hong Kong, in order to attract subscribers from diverse income levels. In Taiwan, cable television has dominated the market for many years. There are particular historical reasons for this. The introduction of television in Taiwan had significant military and political roots: early broadcast televi- sion was associated with partisan news and politically driven content across the top three broadcast channels. Since 1993, with the deregulation of the industry and the entry of new television proprietors mainly through cable TV, Taiwanese viewers have embraced cable. This is partly due to cable’s com- paratively de-politicized content but mainly for its mix of entertainment and information programming – madcap variety shows, drama serials, and inde- pendent news. The penetration level for Taiwan’s cable television market is one of the highest in the world and its subscription rates are also among the cheapest (with, for example, 90 channels for US$15 a month). Ratings for broadcast television, by contrast, are sometimes so low that they do not even register in the ratings data (OnScreenAsia 2008). These three instances highlight the importance of contextual conditions in understanding shifts in the patterns of television consumption, as well as the highly responsive role now played by local consumers. Consumer stud- ies, such as those conducted by Accenture in its second Global Broadcast Consumer Survey (Accenture 2009), report patterns of behaviour which reflect audiences’ readiness to pursue their preferred content across platforms. The Accenture survey found that while 40% of consumers would prefer to watch adverts in exchange for free content, nonetheless up to 49% are willing to pay for digital television. As a result, the survey concluded that subscription television was the most economically resilient section of the television indus- try globally, recording growth rates of up to 12% even during the economic downturn (Accenture 2009). Such a conclusion feeds into the ‘broadcast pes- simism’ noted earlier, however it is important to acknowledge the role played by factors specific to each market. One clear attribute of the global experience of television in the digital era is that where broadcast television fails to pro- vide content that satisfies audience demand (which seems to have occurred in Taiwan), audiences will readily migrate to subscription television in order to access the programmes they want (especially when the prices are competi- tive). In the markets of Hong Kong and Singapore, where broadcast television has traditionally provided a richer mix of content which seems to have more effectively satisfied audience demand, the uptake of cable has been much slower than elsewhere. The content ‘drivers’ across the Chinese language markets are similar. Live variety shows, urban drama and news consistently feature among the top ten programmes – only toppled at times by event television such as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2008 (OnScreenAsia 2009). The line up of the top five programmes across a sample of two weeks of the Hong Kong tel- evision schedule presented in Table 4 and the Taiwan schedule in Table 5

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

(3–9 August 2008)

(27 July–2 August 2008)


Programme Name


Programme Name










1. Olympic Games – opening ceremony (event TV)




Moonlight Resonance






2. Moonlight




Super Trio Supreme (live variety)









3. When A Dog Loves A Cat (drama)




When A Dog Loves A Cat (drama)





4. Super Trio Supreme (live variety)




On The Road (III) (documentary)





5. Best Selling Secrets (drama)




Chua’s Choice






Source: CSM Media Research. Source: (b) (a)

Table 4: Top five TV programmes in Hong Kong.

demonstrate this. The staple choices in both markets are Chinese urban dra- mas revolving around family and careers, variety shows (such as the Super Trio Supreme), and carnivalesque game shows. Although reality television has made an impact in introducing greater diversity to all of these national markets, it rates most highly in China where Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Girl (modelled on the Pop Idol format) and Journey to Shangri-La (modelled on Survivor) courted controversy and made national and international headlines as well as attracting hundreds of thousands of prospective participants (BBC News 2001). Similarly, with Singapore television (Table 6), Chinese language melodra- mas again lead the ratings – just slightly ahead of locally produced lifestyle entertainment. It is important to note however that, within these apparently similar broad patterns of genre preference, at the level of the individual texts there are significant differences which reflect the cultural specificities of each location. In Hong Kong, for instance, the urban soap operas are often ‘rags to riches’ (and back again) stories which feature characters enjoying enor- mous wealth, exploiting the narrative spectacle of a wealthy lifestyle setting. In the Singapore dramas, however, extreme wealth is rarely depicted at all, as the texts channel their aspirational message towards a relatively homo- geneous middle class-ness instead. A significant difference in terms of the political economy underlying these patterns of consumption is that prime time drama serials in Hong Kong are mainly locally produced by TVB, and the leading drama and light entertainment programmes in Taiwan are also produced locally, whereas, in Singapore, prime time drama is likely to come from Singapore, Hong Kong or South Korea.

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

(4–10 August 2008)



Programme Name (Pin Yin)

Rating %

1. TTV

Ming Zhong Zhu Ding Wo Ai Ni (drama)


2. FTV

Niang Jia



3. TTV

Zuan Shi Ye Zong Hui (entertainment)



Zhen Qing Man Tian Xia (drama)


5. FTV

Zong Yi Da Ying Jia (entertainment)


Table 5: Top five TV programmes in Taiwan.

(10–16 August 2008)


Programme Name (English)


Rating %

1. The Defining Moment (Mandarin drama)

Channel 8


2. Love Blossoms

Channel 8



(Mandarin drama)

3. Food Detective (lifestyle food show)

Channel 8


4. True Files

Channel 8



(crime docu-drama)

5. Food Hometown (lifestyle food show)

Channel 8


Source: Taylor Nelson Sofres,

Table 6: Top five TV programmes in Singapore.

It is important for us to note that the preparation of the following tables provides a good example of the difficulty of generating strong comparative information for this kind of project. The data used below is largely drawn from secondary marketing websites where the main objective often seems to be a demonstration of the continuities of market share rather than to register change. In general, audience data is not usually available directly from infor- mation collection agencies, certainly not without payment, and is not released with the intention of providing a comprehensive report. Furthermore, unlike the more cohesive English language markets, the regional Asian television industries do not benchmark their data; therefore any comparative studies

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

must pull together what will be (to a greater or lesser extent) incommensurate information from a diverse range of sources. Tables 4, 5 and 6 set out the top five programmes over a week of programming in Singapore and Taiwan. In the case of Hong Kong, two weeks have been included to accommodate the spike around the Olympic Games opening ceremony: this was to indicate its scale as a special event, while the inclusion of the second week was used to reflect a more comparable spread of audience choices. Notwithstanding the once widespread expectations that the globali- zation of television would result in increasingly homogeneous content (Moran 1998; Waisbord 2004), as well as more recent but in many ways analogous projections of transnational markets for satellite television in Europe (Chalaby 2005), it is not hard to find significant and longstanding national differences in audience programming preferences at the level of genre, not just of the individual text – and even between closely articu- lated English language markets such as the US, the UK and Australia. In Australia, the most consistent long-term presences on the top ten rating programmes have been the broadcast networks’ evening news, reality and lifestyle formats, and local drama. In the US, however, network news does not even make it into the top twenty programmes; instead they are com- posed of reality TV, talent shows and Hollywood drama. In the UK, it is primarily soap opera and reality TV, with the ten o’clock news just squeez- ing in at number ten. Further comparisons of idiosyncratic local prefer- ences might pick up the dominance of prime time telenovelas (and masked wrestling!) in Mexico, and of locally produced carnivalesque game shows in Japan. While there are certainly many common elements in program- ming and scheduling around the world – the international formats Pop Idol and Big Brother, for instance, the various versions and adaptations of the Latin American telenovelas, and international sports coverage – there is lit- tle that is homogeneous or predictable about how these trends play out in the choices which make up the top ten rating programmes of the week in particular markets or territories. Such comparisons reinforce our view that, globalizing media markets not- withstanding, the influence of local conditions has been underplayed in recent accounts of the rise of digital and global television – perhaps because the focus of most accounts has largely been on Anglophone transnational media com- panies. This is particularly true of accounts of television futures coming from the US, where television scholars (with significant exceptions, such as Marwan Kraidy 2009) tend to see their local experience as normative. Even a rich and valuable study such as Amanda Lotz’s The Television will be Revolutionized (2007) is largely unreflective about the particularity of the American experi- ence and the possibility that ‘the television’ might turn out quite differently elsewhere. This habit of mind is one of the reasons why, for instance, western media scholars have often misunderstood the cultural politics of the rise of convergent media markets in China (see Tay 2009; Sun and Zhao 2009). Notwithstanding the anglophone world’s comfortable sense of the devel- opment of an increasingly integrated global media culture, there are plenty of examples of relatively autonomous and highly distinctive media cultures, which, in some cases, are massive in their scale and density. China is always mentioned in this connection, of course, but another, less noticed, example is Mexican tel- evision, which dominates its national market in much the same naturalized manner that American television dominates the American market (and indeed operates hegemonically within its geo-linguistic region in much the way that

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

American television does). In comparison to its influence on many other mar- kets much less geographically proximate, Hollywood is a surprisingly minor presence in Mexican media culture (its influence is actually far more pro- nounced in Australian television!), and the ancillary industries – those associ- ated with media celebrity and publicity and so on – seem to be thoroughly focused on Mexican product. (You could look through Mexican celebrity magazines for some time before you would come across a major Hollywood star; when one of us conducted an informal search through a colleague’s pile of Mexican TV magazines, the only Hollywood celebrity found was Jennifer Lopez!). The wide variations in the geopolitical logics of international televi- sion are underlined when you compare this situation with that of the US’s other neighbour, Canada, where a Canadian television culture continues to struggle against the threat of total submersion beneath programming from the US.


An interesting case study would be that of Hong Kong, as an example of Michael Curtin’s comment that ‘audiences in different [Chinese] locales express distinctively different attitudes towards fashion, music, and imagery’ (Curtin 2007:23). It is worth briefly sketching some of the features of the Hong Kong market in order to highlight the complex patterns of similarity and dif- ference in play. This is a market in which there are strong preferences for local material – largely Cantonese Hong Kong-made drama serials and variety programming. There is a history of highly successful broadcasting program- ming, but recent indications suggest that the attractions of pay TV are mak- ing inroads into the exclusive dominance of broadcasting. The Broadcasting Services Survey in Hong Kong (2007b) reports that the market leader, TVB Jade (Cantonese, local programmes, the top rating channel by a significant margin) lost 6 per cent of its market share to TVB Pearl (English language) and ATV Home (Cantonese) over 2007 (Broadcasting Authority Hong Kong 2007b: 5). The survey also picked up what it regarded as high levels of ‘dis- satisfaction’ with TVB, with outright dissatisfaction registered at 6.6 per cent (Broadcasting Authority Hong Kong 2007b: 8). While Table 7 demonstrates a marked increase in the take-up of subscription television in Hong Kong, particularly in comparison to other forms of non-domestic television, this has not come at the expense of broadcast television. Nor does it constitute a growing embrace of globalized content. English (mainly American) content does occupy a small segment of the market in Hong Kong, as do regional drama and variety shows from Taiwan, South Korea, China and Singapore. However, few of these rate as highly as their Hong Kong-made counterparts, due to the specificity of the cultural taste and the continuing demand for local references on screen. Enquiring into the dissatisfaction expressed about TVB Jade’s program- ming, the survey suggests that consumers are now demanding more variety – and are perhaps locating the potential for more variety in their awareness of the offerings available through pay-TV. A significant number of the viewers surveyed wanted more non-fictional or documentary programming; over one fifth wanted more programming which dealt with health, education, arts and culture, films, and sports. Significantly, most of these dissatisfied viewers also subscribed to pay television where, perhaps, they found such programming available (although the survey results do not necessarily support such a view:

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age Source: Broadcasting Authority Annual Report 2007. (The

Source: Broadcasting Authority Annual Report 2007.

(The term ‘penetration’ is used as in the original diagram, but it is applied in a slightly misleading manner. We acknowledge that it is customary to use ‘pen- etration’ to refer to the numbers subscribing to pay TV or choosing particular technologies –VCRs, for instance – rather than those accessing broadcast TV, which is usually assumed to be universally available. The diagram nonetheless helps to map shifts in the market shares accessed through the various platforms, to demonstrate that the only really significant movement is in the take-up of domes- tic pay TV).

Table 7: Penetration of licensed television services in Hong Kong.

the top rating pay channels were News channel at 18.1%, the Movie Channel at 7.1% and the Entertainment Channel at 6.4%). Media consumption in Hong Kong has always been relatively high. In his recent study of the consumption of news in Hong Kong, Li Xigen refers to about a dozen local daily newspapers, and reports that 89% of the population consume newspapers daily, spending about an hour a day on this activity (Li 2006). This interest in news and global information is also reflected in the use of the Internet in Hong Kong. According to the World Internet Project, 66.8% of the population are Internet users and news is one of the leading applications, with Internet users of news standing at 11%– more than multimedia (movies and music), for instance, which comes in at 9% (Hong Kong Internet Survey Project 2007). The take-up of new technologies highlights what becomes an important issue in discussing the specifics of what happens to digital television in particular markets. Local and regional differences in the uses and empha- sis of the Internet and other communications applications (such as the mobile phone) alert us to the importance of divergent cultural consumption practices that ultimately determine which (and how) new technologies and platforms will be used. If we were to compare how the Internet is used for social communica- tion and networking in Hong Kong, for instance, we would find that e-mails are marginally more popular among Internet users in Hong Kong than instant messaging sites such as QQ (Chinese language) or MSN (English language). In China, however, it is dramatically the reverse, with instant messaging recording participation rates of 81.4% to e-mail use of 56.5% (December 2007) (CNNIC

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

2008). This, to extend the comparison further, is relatively low in international terms when compared to the e-mail participation rates in the US at 91% and South Korea at 82.1%. A simple point to make is that the reasons for these significant variations across national, geographical and cultural locations are not only technological or infrastructural, but also social and cultural. The specificities of the Hong Kong market for television demonstrate how the competing formats and platforms of delivery vary in relation to, and in ways that categorically respond to, local conditions. These conditions may be cultural, regulatory, infrastructural, or political, but they will exercise a deter- mining influence over how television is produced, distributed, and consumed within national markets as well as how it is traded across markets.


The question for us now, then, is not so much a matter of whether we are see- ing the end of television as a form of content, but rather a matter of mapping the varying formations and configurations of the presentation and distribution of television – and asking of each, as does Joshua Green (2008), ‘how is this still television?’ This reiterates the question Raymond Williams asked more than thirty years ago in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974): what are the alternative uses and social functions of these new forms? There is still almost as much to be done now as when Williams first asked that question to establish just what it is that remains fundamental to television. The spe- cific question for television studies in the digital era is whether the advent of digital technology has categorically changed the social practice of watching television. It would have to be acknowledged that the evidence so far points in sev- eral different directions. For instance, when we think about the aesthetic and spectacular dimension of television as a regime of visual culture, there are two contradictory movements observable in most developed markets. On the one hand, there is the move to the home theatre with high definition digital tel- evision on large flat screens and surround sound, in which the quality of the audience’s audio-visual experience is of paramount importance. The shift to this model of home entertainment is a recent development made possible by technological advancements in the integration of television and hi-fi systems as well as in digital and high definition television; the idea of the home theatre explicitly aims at replicating the aesthetically ‘superior’ cinematic experience. On the other hand, and apparently working in entirely the opposite direction, there are the increasing numbers who choose to access video through the Internet. In this case, they are consuming material where the technical and aesthetic quality of the experience – the image has poor resolution, it is inter- rupted by delays in downloading, and uses low-fi sound – is often at quite primitive levels. The compensation for this seems to lie in the consumer’s commitment to the benefits of customization; the accessing of large menus of otherwise inaccessible material takes precedence over the audio-visual qual- ity of the texts themselves. Arching over all of this, of course, is a regime of visual culture that remains, on balance, anchored within the larger context of the home and thus infers many of the issues of domesticity that have always framed the practices of television consumption. Similarly, among the key attributes of broadcast television has been the sense of ‘co-presence’ (Ellis 2002) – the perception that we are watching as part of a larger, customarily national, audience and that this

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

constitutes a significant component in the character of our engagement with what we watch on television. Clearly, this is important when we are watching a national celebration, a high profile sporting event, or a news event of national significance; sharing our response to such moments becomes part of our sociality at the workplace, in the neighbourhood, within our communities. It might seem that the teenager constructing their menu of television clips from YouTube is not consuming televi- sion in this way; it may seem, indeed, that this is a highly individualized, expressly customized mode of consumption and thus does not carry with it the sense of co-presence for so long attributed to the consumption of television. We are not sure that this is necessarily true; rather, it might be the case that the nature of this co-presence has in many ways changed and expanded. Rather than just the co-present nation, for instance, what we might have is a co-present globalized taste culture or subculture to which the individual confirms their membership through their consump- tion of particular clips, or participation through engagement of one kind or another (comments, subscription, and so on) with particular YouTube ‘stars’ such as Numa Numa Guy (Gary Brolsma). Importantly, it seems as if it might be the international character of this taste culture which is among its attractions – picking up on the pref- erences of a more or less globalized (or at least transnational western) audience all watching Jon Stewart or Tina Fey or the latest video from the international music industry. Not all of these clips are entertainment driven, however. For example, Barack Obama’s presidential inaugura- tion speech attracted four million downloads between January and May 2009, thus demonstrating the diverse consumption and almost universal archival potential on YouTube. However, what is significant is that this display of national politics shares the same public archival space as other very different clips such as the infamous Bus Uncle from Hong Kong (random surveillance on public transport), and I am Maru cat from Japan (domesticity and private life). There certainly seems to be a prima facie case to argue that the consump- tion of these clips on YouTube, and elsewhere, is among the activities that provide the basic material from which the taste culture’s sociality might be constructed. The imbrication of this culture within the growth of social net- working technologies (and of course much of what is shared through these networks is video) would support such a view. However, we still do not under- stand very much about the specifics of these formations of co-presence; such as what forms of sociality are being promoted, and how can we classify these as subcultures (if indeed we can call them that at all given the constrained character of the cultural connections the members can actually share). If we are to extend the frame of television to these new media technologies, much more work still has to be carried out. That said, and not to seem to exaggerate the novelty of the situation we are describing, it is also notable that so much of what is consumed through the video aggregator sites, and certainly so much of what makes up the list of its most viewed selections, actually comes from mainstream broadcast and subscription television. According to Burgess and Green (2009: 46), material from broadcast and mass media sources make up 66% of the ‘most viewed category’ and 47% of the videos which users have added to their personal profiles. While the implications of this argument, then, would indicate that there are strong commonalities in the experiences of television just described,

Jinna Tay and Graeme Turner

it is also worth addressing what seems to be an almost taken-for-granted

assumption in much of television studies that, for instance, watching a foot- ball match on broadcast television and downloading a Saturday Night Live

sketch from YouTube are mutually exclusive activities. That is, much of the

argument about the end of television seems to assume that the one individual

is unlikely to engage in both of these activities – hence the narrative which

sees the rise of one form of consumption as necessarily predicating the demise of the other. Clearly, as the evidence of a steadily increasing, albeit mutating, consumption of television might suggest, this is not necessarily true. What seems worth emphasizing is that these are quite different, but in some ways, analogous or even complementary activities, which link the consumption of television into a wider range of social and cultural relations than was previ- ously the case. That the digital capacities for copying, sharing, and so on have been added to the traditional elements of the television experience might be regarded as having extended the purchase of television into the personal and

the private in ways that were hitherto difficult to achieve via the television set

in the living room.

Further, the diversity of content, television channels and platforms now available to us do not so easily allow viewers to take a passive role in their

television watching; viewers are in a sense forced to become more ‘proactive’ in their televisual choices and tastes. If you have 200 channels and nothing catches your fancy, there is still the DVD box set, the Internet, the pay-per- view – a variety of choices of entertainment. As the digital optimists like to remind us, the choice of how you wish to be entertained and informed is, increasingly in many markets, yours to make. Thus, coupled with the expansion of choice is the greater sense of decision-making and respon- sibility that now goes with watching television with your family, spouse, friends or just alone. As a number of commentators have argued, this can be hard work. Jostein Gripsrud has noted that the European broadcasters initially feared broadcast television would be made obsolete by the intro- duction of ‘MeTV’ where viewers can personally programme their sched- ules from a large number of suppliers (Gripsrud 2004: 214). However, this

assumes that increasingly time-poor urban viewers would always choose the labour of negotiating the ever-increasing number of suppliers, time schedules and new content in order simply to select a programme to watch. Choice fatigue, as Ellis calls it, turns choice into ‘an imposition rather than

a freedom’, and ‘broadcast television answers to this feeling’ (Ellis 2002:

171). It is possible that choice fatigue may come to play an increasing role in a context where we know already that consumers only use between eight and fifteen television channels on a regular basis – no matter how many they might actually possess the technology to access (Buonanno 2008: 69). That said, as the consumers of digital television increasingly embrace the opportunities for customization and individualization and so on, it would seem reasonable to assume that some of the preceding versions of co-presence – the national, the local, the broader and less personal social framings – are likely to become less important to the experience of television than they have been in the past. This will vary, though, according to the social, political and regulatory context – and not just merely in relation to the actions of consum- ers or the enabling capacities of the technology. There are plenty of locations

where broadcasting has declined in importance but where the embedding of the national has remained a major discursive component of the television pro- gramming produced (see, for instance, Volcic 2009).

Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age

This article sets out to make a contribution to developing the comparative dimensions of television studies’ accounts of the global rise and take-up of dig- ital television. It is undoubtedly the case that the particular capacities of digital television and the character of the platforms upon which it has been mounted so far will change the social practice of television in many locations and con- texts. The rejection of ‘appointment TV’ organized through a fixed programming schedule, the increasingly varied possibilities for the way television might now take its place in our routines of everyday life, and the potential for user-gener- ated content to reconfigure aspects of the familiar relations between media pro- duction and consumption, are just a few among many. However, we should not lose sight of the continuities with aspects of the broadcast regime nor assume that we are awaiting the same process of evolutionary change in every market as result of a shift in technological capabilities. Nor, and most importantly, should we overlook the notable and highly contingent national, regional, political and cultural differences which need to be factored into any genuinely international and comparative account of the possible futures of digital television. There are significant practical difficulties, however, which limit our capaci- ties to find appropriate ways of developing these comparisons – even if we can quickly agree on what we might include as ‘television’ in the current con- text. As things stand, television, broadly defined, is measured in many differ- ent ways in its various locations: sometimes by ratings agencies, sometimes by state regulators, sometimes by marketing arms of television companies themselves and so on. The actual form that such information takes is subject to political as well as commercial and cultural influence, and the purpose for which it is designed and collected is almost always to do with reasons that are internal to the nation-state or the local market. As a result, comparative work on digital television will have to become more collaborative, involving culturally grounded local knowledge and expertise rather than merely access to data, especially if we are to make the important distinctions and develop the nuances which make this work useful.


The research project from which this article derives is a funded study of post- broadcast television which examines trends and experiences in the usual anglophone countries (UK, US, Australia, Canada) as well as in the geo- linguistic markets of Asia and Latin America. The project is led by Graeme Turner and has two research fellows, Jinna Tay and Anna Pertierra, working in the foreign language markets. It has been running since 2007 and is funded until the end of 2011. So far, it has produced one edited volume that attempts to give some sense of the issues and the diversity of experiences upon which it has focused (Turner and Tay 2009).


Accenture (2009), ‘Television: Entering the era of mass-fragmentation’, Media & Entertainment Industry Group, The Accenture Global Broadcast Consumer Survey 2009,


Survey.pdf%20. Accessed 25 May 2009. Athique, A. M. (2009), ‘From Monopoly to Polyphony: India in the era of Television’, in G. Turner & J. Tay (eds), Television Studies After TV:

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Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York:

Routledge, pp. 159–167. BBC News (2001), Chinese reality TV attracts thousands, BBC News, 22 June Accessed 27 May


Briel, R. (2007), IPTV Services grow 13% worldwide, Broadband TV News, Online: Accessed 20 May 2009. Broadband Forum (2009), global_iptv_market_nears_24mn_subs,_europe_leads_growth. Accessed 22 July 2009. Broadcasting Authority of Hong Kong (2007a), Broadcasting Authority Annual Report 2007–2008: The Hong Kong Broadcasting Scene, Online: http:// Accessed 20 May 2009. Broadcasting Authority of Hong Kong (2007b), Broadcasting Services Survey:

Executive Summary, Consumer Search, Online: doc/BSS2007ExeSum_en.pdf. Accessed 18 May 2009. Buonanno, M. (2008), The Age of Television: Experiences and Theories (Jennifer Radice trans.), Bristol: Intellect. Burgess, J. and Green, J. (2009), YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture, Cambridge: Polity. Chalaby, J. K. (2005) (ed.), Transnational Television Worldwide: Towards a New Media Order, London: I.B.Taurus. Curtin, M. (2007), Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV, Berkeley CA: University of California Press. China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) (2008), Internet Survey, July, Accessed 20 April 2009. Ellis, John (2002), Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, London and New York: I.B.Taurus. Ewing, Scott, Thomas, Julian, and Schiessel, Julianne (2008), The Internet in Australia, CCI Digital Futures Report, ARC Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation: Swinburne University of Technology. Green, J. (2008), ‘Why do they call it TV when it’s not on the box? “New” television services and “old” television’, Media International Australia, No. 126, pp. 95–106. Gripsrud, J. (2004), ‘Broadcast Television: the Chances of its Survival in a Digital Age’, in Spigel and Olsson (eds), Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, Durham and London: Duke University Press. Hong Kong Internet Survey Project (2007), Internet Use in Hong Kong: the 2007 Annual Survey Report, Web Mining Lab, Department of Media & Communication: City University of Hong Kong, http://newmedia.cityu. Accessed 10 May 2009. Informa Telecoms and Media (2009), archive/2009_02_global_digital_tv_2009.pdf. Accessed 22 July 2009. Kraidy, M. (2009), Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in public life, New York: Cambridge University Press. Lau, A. (2008a), TV Top 20: All Eyes on Beijing Olympic Games, MARKETING-, 18 August, 8182. Accessed 22 May 2009. Lau, A. (2008b), TV Top 20: Moonlight Resonance Shines, MARKETING-, 8 August, Accessed 22 May 2009.

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Li, X. (2006), Internet Newspapers: the making of a mainstream medium, London:

Routledge. Lotz, A. (2007), The Television will be Revolutionized, New York: New York University Press. MDA (Media Development Authority) (2006), TV Viewership in Singapore for Fourth Quarter 2006, Accessed 21 May 2009. Miller, T. (2009), ‘Approach with Caution and Proceed with Care: campaigning for the US presidency “after” TV’, in G. Turner & J. Tay (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 75–82. Moran, A. (1998), Copycat TV: Globalization, Television Formats and Cultural Identity, Luton: University of Luton Press. Nielsen (2009a), ‘Television, Internet and Mobile Usage in the US’, A2/M2 Three Screen Report, 4 th Quarter, 2008, downloads/3_Screens_4Q08_final.pdf. Accessed 12 May 2009. Nielsen (2009b), ‘Television, Internet and Mobile Usage in the US’, A2/M2 Three Screen Report, 1st Quarter, 2009, downloads/3_Screens_1Q09_final.pdf. Accessed 12 May 2009. OnScreenAsia (2008), Taiwan in Focus, 1 April, print.asp?id=2653. Accessed 20 May 2009. OnScreenAsia (2009), Hong Kong in Focus, 1 April, http://www.onscreenasia. com/print.asp?id=4896. Accessed 25 May 2009. Rosen, Jay (2006), ‘The people formerly known as the audience’, PressThink:

Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine, 27 June, http://journalism.nyu. ed/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2006/06/27/ppl_frmr.html. Accessed 25 November 2008. Stelter, B. (2009), ‘Hulu Questions Count of Its Audience’, New York Times, 15 May, p. B5. Sun and Zhao (2009), ‘Television culture with “Chinese characteristics”:

the politics of compassion and education’ in G. Turner and J. Tay (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 96–104. Tay, J., and Turner, G. (2008), ‘What is television? Comparing media systems in the post-broadcast era’, Media International Australia, No. 126, pp. 71–82. Tay, J. (2009), ‘Television in Chinese geo-linguistic markets: deregulation, reregulation and market forces in the post-broadcast era’, in G. Turner and J. Tay (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 105–114. Turner, G. (2009), ‘Television and the Nation: Does this matter any more?’, in G. Turner and J. Tay (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 54–64. Turner G., and Tay J. (2009) (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge. Volcic, Z. (2009), ‘Television in the Balkans: the rise of commercial nationa- lism’, in G. Turner & J. Tay (eds), Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post Broadcast Era, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 115–124. Waisbord, S. (2004), ‘McTV? Understanding the Global Popularity of Television Formats’, Television and New Media, 5: 4, pp. 359–383. Williams, R. (1974), Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London:


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Tay, J. and Turner, G. (2010), ‘Not the Apocalypse: Television Futures in the Digital Age’, International Journal of Digital Television 1: 1, pp. 31–50, doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.31/1


Jinna Tay is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia, working on Graeme Turner’s international project, Television in the Post-Broadcast Era. She is the Co-editor (with Graeme Turner) of Television Studies After TV:

Understanding Television in the post-broadcast era (Routledge, 2009), and has published on fashion journalism, Asian television, and creative industries.


Graeme Turner is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Federation Fellow, Professor of Cultural Studies, Director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia, and convenor of the ARC Cultural Research Network. He has published widely on media and cultural studies topics. His most recent books include (with Jinna Tay) Television Studies after TV: Understanding Television in the Post-Broadcast era (Routledge, 2009), and Ordinary People and the Media: The Demotic Turn (Sage, 2010).


JDTV 1 (1) pp. 51–68 Intellect Limited 2010

International Journal of Digital Television Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.51/1

JOCK GIVEN Swinburne University, Australia

PAUL NORRIS New Zealand Broadcasting School

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?


‘Freeview’ is the survival strategy for free-to-view TV in the digital age in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. It is mix of marketing, services and technology, and of defensive and offensive elements. The mix is different in different places:

• In the UK, where the concept was launched in 2002, digital terrestrial television (DTT) became Freeview, now the most popular form of digital TV. Freeview represented a fresh strategy to relaunch DTT after the failure of the first model.

• In New Zealand, where DTT started in 2008, DTT is Freeview, but Freeview was a satellite service first, appealing mainly to those with poor analogue recep- tion. The concept was imported from the UK as the proven way to make DTT work, and deployed from the outset by broadcasters with government backing.

• In Australia, as this article was finalized in August 2009, Freeview is still mainly a marketing campaign rather than a TV service. Broadcasters have not deployed it enthusiastically to launch the medium, but reluctantly, many years on, as part of the government-mandated push to digital switchover.


Freeview digital television free-to-view television public service broadcasting satellite television high definition television broadband video-on-demand

This article explores the origins and development of these three Freeviews. It provides an unusual case study of a related, though different, set of products marketed under

Jock Given | Paul Norris

the same name in different countries. It also speculates about their future as televi- sion morphs into new shapes, especially encouraged by the growth of high definition, hard-drive-recording and broadband-connected receivers. Identifying both similari- ties and differences across the three Freeviews, the authors conclude that although ‘Freeview’ is helping to make it possible to switch off analogue services and free up spectrum for other purposes in all three countries, the national differences defy reduction to a single definition. Freeview, like television itself, is different in these different places and is changing over time.


‘Freeview’ is the survival strategy for free-to-view television in the digital age in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. It is mix of marketing, services and technology, and of defensive and offensive elements. The mix is different in different places. This article explores the origins and differences among these Freeviews. It provides an unusual case study of related, though different, prod- ucts marketed under the same name in different countries. The article con- cludes by speculating about the futures of the three Freeviews, as television morphs into new shapes, especially encouraged by the growth of high defini- tion, hard-drive-recording-and-playback and broadband-connected receivers.


In the UK, where the concept was launched in 2002, digital terrestrial televi- sion (DTT) became Freeview. This was the name chosen to relaunch the DTT platform after the collapse of the ITV Digital service. New partners adopted

a new strategy and gave it a new name. After initial scepticism, DTT had

eventually been embraced in the 1990s by terrestrial broadcasters hoping to reassert themselves after failing to secure multi-channel futures in the 1980s

through BBC Satellite and British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB). As Murdoch’s satellite pay TV service, BSkyB, grew in popularity and power and planned its own digital service, DTT seemed to satisfy an urgent competitive need for the established broadcasters, the BBC, and the commercial broadcasters ITV

and Channel 4. It could also serve a policy need for governments wanting public service broadcasting and broadcasters to endure. Launched in 1998, DTT emphasized subscription services because that was where UK television seemed to be heading. By 2000, the subscription- dominated future anticipated by the 1986 Peacock Committee was arriving quickly. Digital TV delivered by satellite, cable or over-the-air ‘had become virtually synonymous with pay TV’ (Starks 2007: 41–63). The 2002 commercial failure of ITV Digital (formerly ONdigital) on the DTT platform provided the opportunity for the BBC to reposition DTT as a free service. With transmission provider Crown Castle (now Arqiva), it won access to the transmission facili- ties relinquished by ITV Digital. These partners, together with BSkyB, formed

a joint venture to create the Freeview brand and market services. A much

simpler marketing message was developed: thirty TV channels plus radio stations from known broadcasters; received through simple, fit-it-yourself set-top boxes and existing rooftop aerials; free once consumers bought a box

for less than £100, with no on-going subscriptions to pay (Starks 2007: 83). Significantly, this reorientation came from a consortium that now included the country’s dominant pay TV operator. BSkyB had always wanted a stake in DTT, but was forced out of ONdigital by the regulator. It became a pure competitor to the consortium that went on to launch DTT, unsuccessfully, as

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

a pay platform. With DTT now steering away from pay TV, BSkyB’s involve-

ment as a content provider but not a controller of transmission facilities was less troubling for the competition regulator (Starks 2007: 80). Freeview was immediately popular, eventually becoming the dominant digital TV platform. Within a year, it was being called ‘this year’s most unlikely must-have for Christmas’. The formula was finally breaking the resistance of:

“digital refuseniks” … bypassing the fears of the technologically timid and the prejudices of anti-satellite snobs – the middle-class ‘Hyacinth Buckets’ who still associate the dish with council houses or regard it as an eyesore to be fought vigorously by the local planning committee. (Smith 2003)

Offering a cheap alternative to the more established cable or satellite services, Freeview, according to former managing director of BBC Television, Will Wyatt, was ‘a non-threatening, attractive way to show that digital doesn’t bite. The curse has now come off digital’ (Smith 2003). By the second quarter of 2009, 18.2 million homes (70%) were using DTT/Freeview. For 9.7 million (37.6%), it

was the only kind of television. By comparison, 8.9 million homes (34.8%) were taking pay satellite and 3.1 million (12.2%) digital cable (Ofcom 2009). In New Zealand, where DTT started in 2008, DTT is Freeview, but Freeview is more than DTT. The service was first delivered a year earlier by satellite, appealing mainly to those with poor analogue reception. By 2006, when the New Zealand Government committed to it, Freeview had proved itself as a way of making DTT work in the UK. It was imported, adapted and deployed from the outset by New Zealand broadcasters with government backing. At the time, the only digital TV services available were the satellite service from the Murdoch-controlled monop- oly pay TV provider, Sky TV, and a very limited cable service from TelstraClear. Sky had been offering digital pay channels from 1998 and was in more than 40 per cent of households. TelstraClear sold Sky content delivered over its cable net- work to some 70,000 subscribers in two cities only, Wellington and Christchurch.

If free-to-air broadcasters were to move to digital transmission, one option would

have been to use Sky’s digital platform. This would have been much cheaper than building their own. But the Labour-led government, in power from 1999 to 2008, did not want to commit to one privately-owned platform, notably one owned by Murdoch interests. It also wanted to ensure digital TV would not come to mean pay TV and to secure the future of public broadcasting in the digital era. As the then minister put it in announcing the policy in June 2006: ‘The Labour-led government wants to ensure all New Zealanders are able to enjoy the benefits of digital television, and that public broadcasting remains a strong part of the free-to-air mix’ (Maharey 2006a). One explanation for the delay in moving to a Freeview solution was that the government wanted industry to come up with its own plan for the transi- tion to digital. While the private broadcaster (then CanWest, owner of TV3 and C4) could see little return in moving quickly on this, the state-owned broadcaster TVNZ had made several earlier attempts to ‘go digital’. It believed that to survive in the digital age it needed a platform that would effectively compete with Sky. In 1999 it rushed a proposal before the incoming Labour- led government that involved a joint venture with the British cable company NTL. But the government was not prepared to make a hasty decision and rejected the proposal, ostensibly on cost grounds – it would have required an

investment of NZ$217m and not returned a profit for eight years. TVNZ’s next

Jock Given | Paul Norris

attempt was to partner with the telecommunications company TelstraSaturn, now TelstraClear – a wholly owned subsidiary of the biggest Australian telco, Telstra. It was an ambitious and complex arrangement that appeared to allow TVNZ to profit from pay channels run by TelstraSaturn. This scheme col- lapsed in August 2001 when one of TelstraSaturn’s then parent companies in Australia, Austar, withdrew its support. By 2006 it was apparent that the hands-off approach by government was unlikely to achieve a timely result. A cost benefit study commissioned from global consulting firm Spectrum Strategy Consultants concluded there would be a net benefit to New Zealand of $230m provided switch- over occurred by 2015, but that the returns would diminish if analogue switch off was delayed (Spectrum Strategy Consultants 2006). In June 2006, the government settled on a plan for the digital transition of the free-to-air broadcasters and committed money to it. A consortium of these broadcasters, known as Freeview, would lead the transition on both satel- lite and terrestrial platforms and promote consumer take-up. Each broad- caster had to establish two new digital channels within two years of the launch of the terrestrial platform. Spectrum would be allocated for the ter- restrial platform, free to broadcasters in the period before switchover. The government would contribute NZ$25m towards Freeview’s establishment costs and $79 million for two new TVNZ channels. By June 2009, two years after the satellite service launch, Freeview Satellite take-up was estimated at 10.6% of households and DTT at 5.6%. In Australia, eight years after the first DTT services went to air in January 2001, Freeview is still mainly a marketing campaign. The country took some elements of the early UK experience and distanced itself from others. Like their UK counterparts, Australian TV broadcasters wanted quick decisions about DTT in the mid-1990s. Like their US counterparts, however, the com- mercial broadcasters that still dominate television viewing – 60% of all TV viewing and nearly 80% of free-to-air viewing in mid-2009 (‘The Numbers’ 2009) – were more concerned about laying claim to spectrum and resisting new entrants than offering more channels. Having stalled the introduction of pay TV until 1995, commercial broadcasters saw DTT as a tool to maintain the dominance terrestrial TV retained in Australia but was losing elsewhere. Broadcasters emphasized the quality improvements of high definition, argu- ing for digital TV to be treated as just another step in the technical evolution of TV, like the shift from black-and-white to colour. This quality upgrade was a necessary response to digital cable and satellite TV and the expected migra- tion from VHS to DVD. ‘Free’ was a critical part of the pitch but ‘Freeview’ came much later. Using DTT for free-to-air services helped to make the political case for spectrum to be allocated without extra charge (broadcasters already pay revenue-based licence fees ranging up to 9 per cent of the annual gross earnings of the biggest stations) and for government to subsidize half the cost of the digital transmission infrastructure in non-metropolitan areas. It was consistent with the terrestrial industry’s successful campaign for a long ‘anti-siphoning list’ of major sporting events that had to be offered first to free-to-air broadcasters before they could be acquired exclusively by pay TV. It also fitted neatly with the strategy of DTT-as-evolution rather than revolution. The technology of DTT would enable those getting access to it to provide any sort of digital service, not just television, and to introduce new forms of encryption. But it was television programmes that broadcasters

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

wanted to continue supplying, still funded by advertising and government, ensuring services remained free-to-view. The 1998 legislation that set out the broad policy for DTT prohibited sub- scription services. This was seen as prescient when ITV Digital collapsed in the UK. The industry body representing commercial TV broadcasters changed its name to Free TV Australia in 2004 and the head of the biggest pay operator, Foxtel, refers to his medium as ‘subscription TV’ rather than ‘pay TV’, remind- ing observers that viewers pay for ‘free TV’ too, though indirectly. Free-to-air broadcasters formed a Freeview consortium in July 2008 and launched the con- cept a few months later. Australia’s Freeview says it ‘represents Australians’ right to watch quality television, for free’ (Freeview 2009). A roadblock advertisement screened across all networks in November was parodied in a clip distributed on YouTube highlighting the paucity of Freeview’s new content:

Get ready for more of the same with Freeview … You can watch the same thing on up to four different channels … You can watch sports you’ve never heard of, news you can’t understand … There’s even an electronic program guide to help you look up which show Channel Nine will run 20 minutes late tonight … Freeview. I bet you can’t wait … to upgrade to broadband. (‘Freeview: More of the Same Sh#t’)

The mainstream press was less savage but hardly more supportive, calling it ‘lipstick on a TV pig’ (Browne 2009) and ‘little more than a marketing cam- paign to steer us towards buying Freeview-approved TV receivers and set-top boxes’ (Blundell 2009). ‘The reason the Freeview campaign doesn’t tell you much is simple: there’s not much to tell’ (Turner 2009).

you much is simple: there’s not much to tell’ (Turner 2009). The logo for New Zealand’s

The logo for New Zealand’s ‘Freeview’ service.

Jock Given | Paul Norris






DTT Policy


Date initial policy settled




Date DTT services commenced

November 1998

May 2007: DTH

Jan 2001, progressively to 2004 in regional areas


April 2008: DTT

Initial switchover


Anticipated 6–10 years after commencement

years after commence- ment



Current switchover


Firm switchover date will be announced when digital penetra- tion reaches 75% of households, or 2012, whichever is sooner. Target date to be set once penetration reaches 60% of homes

2010–13: starting in coun- try Victoria/NSW (Mildura/ Sunraysia) first half 2010, ending major cities December 2013


Switchover completed in some areas, commencing in Whitehaven

Multichannel TV take up at DTT launch (% of hhs)

26.4 (June 1998)



Three Freeviews


Date Freeview


Oct 2002

May 2007: DTH

Announced formation July 2008; appointed CEO, launch and roadblock ad. November; further road- block ad. 24 April 2009

commenced [ter-



April 2008: DTT

Type of entity, governance

Managed by DTT Services Ltd, a company owned and run by its shareholders – initially BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle (now Arqiva), ITV and C4 admitted later

Non-profit consortium of FTA broadcast- ers TVNZ (operators of TVOne and TV2), MediaWorks NZ (operators of TV3 and C4), Maori TV and Radio NZ

Owned by national public service (ABC, SBS), com- mercial networks (Seven, Nine, TEN) and regional commercial networks (Southern Cross, Prime, WIN)

Services and func- tions offered at launch


TV channels plus

11–13 TV channels plus 3–4 audio channels


TV channels each

audio channels

simulcast in SD and HD plus ABC and SBS audio channels

Most existing FTA services, several new services

Most existing FTA services, 2 new services


Most existing FTA services, no new services

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?





Services and


TV channels

Broadcasters can choose whether to broadcast on Freeview satellite or Freeview DTT HD, so platforms have slightly different offerings.

DTH (May 2009) 13 TV and 4 radio channels:


functions offered


now (generally


audio channels

• All five FTA networks offer separate SD and HD channels but little difference in program- ming

• ABC2 since March 2005. ABC3 Kids fund- ing committed in May


Freeview+ branded products – hard drive and DVD recorders, players and integrated digital TVs

Freeview also available as part of pay pack- ages from BT, Setanta, TopUp TV: eg. Top Up TV Freeview+ STBs give access to Freeview channels + pay pack- ages and include hard drive recording

TVOne, TV2, TV3, C4, Maori TV, TVNZ 6, TVNZ 7, TV3 Plus 1.


budget, launch later


• Commercial network Ten’s OneHD [sport]

TVNZ Sport Extra, Stratos, Parliament TV, Cue, Te Reo.


since March 2009

• SBS2 since June 2009

• 9 networks GO! since


Radio: Radio NZ National, Radio NZ Concert, George FM, Base FM.


August 2009

• 7 network multichannel likely late 2009


DTT (May 2009) has 11–12 TV and 3 radio channels.

ABC and SBS national and local stations includ- ing extra digital stations launched on digital radio July 2009

Current DTT take up [% of house- holds]

Q2 2009

June 2009 except Sky

Q2 2009


Freeview DTH:



• DTT 53% of all house- holds, ranging from


Digital pay TV:

• Freeview DTT: 5.6%


22% in remote areas


• Sky digital pay TV

to 75% in Mildura/ Sunraysia

All digital TV: 89.8%


45% [Dec 08]


• All digital TV 61.2%

• Further 13% get at least some FTA channels via pay TV








DVB-T2/MPEG4 serv- ices commencing in some areas in late-2009 and early 2010

Jock Given | Paul Norris


Television in Britain, New Zealand and Australia was different well before these three Freeviews. World War II was still three years away when London first got television; the world had been at peace for more than a decade when Australia and New Zealand got permanent services (Day 2000: 11–30). Private, commer- cial TV came to Britain and Australia in the mid-1950s, but Australia got much more of it. Two commercial stations were available immediately in the big cities and a third came in the mid-1960s. The BBC’s second commercial competitor, Channel 4, came a quarter of a century after the first, and the third, Channel 5, launched only in 1997. New Zealand’s public service broadcaster accepted advertising virtually from the outset; the ABC’s and BBC’s domestic terrestrial services still do not. But the public monopoly did not face private competition in New Zealand until 1989. Colour TV came to the UK in 1967, several years before New Zealand (1974) and Australia (1975). Pay TV launched in the UK and New Zealand in the late 1980s, several years before Australia. European Union law and policy have influenced policy about television in the UK. With DTT, this has included coordination of spectrum allocations, switchover timetables, plans for the use of vacated ‘digital dividend’ spectrum and limits on the use of public subsidies. In New Zealand and Australia, by contrast, DTT policy has developed quite independently, despite the increas- ing integration of communications and media markets in the two countries, supported by the very liberal Closer Economic Relations bilateral free trade agreement. Separated by over 2000km of the Tasman Sea, the spectrum coor- dination issues are tiny by comparison with Europe’s.


The different origins and timing of DTT in the three countries influenced the policy goals that were emphasized, the interests served and the resistance faced. Everywhere, the free-to-air industry wanted a digital platform to help it to compete with pay TV. Significantly, Rupert Murdoch controlled or held a major stake in the main pay TV player in all three countries. Recognizing the popularity of free-to-air TV, governments were pre- pared to help, by allocating spectrum (everywhere), foregoing fees (UK and Australia), and providing funding for new channels (UK and NZ, and even- tually Australia). In the UK, DTT was initially seen as a platform for free-to- air broadcasters to confront subscription rivals head-on by getting into pay services themselves. This was resisted in Australia and never seriously enter- tained in New Zealand once the failure of ITV Digital and the success of UK Freeview suggested multichannel free-to-air was the way to make DTT work. The about-face in the UK was more than saving face. The BBC’s director- general Greg Dyke at the time later admitted the corporation’s support for the Freeview idea was a defensive one, designed to keep it out of pay TV.

Freeview makes it very hard for any government to try and make the BBC a pay-television service. The more Freeview boxes out there, the harder it will be to switch the BBC to a subscription service since most of the boxes can’t be adapted for pay-TV.

(Gibson 2004)

Putting DTT and subsequently Freeview in the hands of incumbent free-to-air broadcasters meant different things in the three territories, because of the

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

different structures of the TV business. In the UK and NZ, it meant state- constituted broadcasters became the main players. The scale and power of the BBC and TVNZ has ensured better coordination of the activities required to pitch digital TV to consumers than in Australia, where the commercial networks take the lion’s share of overall viewing but no single network dominates. The fragmentation of interests in Australia delayed even the development of a con- solidated electronic programme guide for DTT in all areas. Further, the own- ers of the Australian commercial networks each held other interests that meant they viewed the possibilities of the digital terrestrial platform differently. The Packer group that controlled the Nine Network, until selling out to the overseas private equity group CVC Asia in 2007–2008, also held a 25 per cent stake in the main pay TV operator, Foxtel, and a half-share in the highly profitable company that supplied sports channels to it, Premier Media Group. It had a multichannel strategy without DTT, unlike the Seven Network, that took over its number one rating in 2007, but has struggled to get into pay TV. As this article was going to press, the Seven Network acquired nearly 20% of, and agreed to nominate two directors to, the Packer company that still holds the interests in Foxtel and Premier Media Group.


Resistance to DTT came from similar directions, though not identical places. Former Thames TV, BSkyB and Channel 5 executive David Elstein argued in 2002 DTT ‘would not exist at all but for political intervention’. It was ‘a political project designed to protect public service broadcasting’, motivated by ‘fear – of Murdoch, of choice and of loss of control’ – and by government greed about the potential revenue from auctioning vacated spectrum. Writing at the time of ITV Digital’s collapse, Elstein was sceptical of the possibility and even the desir- ability of shutting down analogue TV, and scathing about the amount of public money poured into digital. This money came through the increase in the licence fee to help fund the BBC’s central role and new channels, and through revenue foregone by giving free access to additional spectrum for all the terrestrial broad- casters and reducing the fees for continuing access to their analogue spectrum. The failure of ITV Digital, Elstein thought, offered ministers ‘a golden chance to detach themselves from the tar baby. History – and the British public – will judge them harshly for failing to take it’ (Elstein 2002). The nascent pay TV and competitive telecommunications operators in Australia arrived late to the DTT debate, finding most of the big decisions already effectively taken. Reviewing the entire broadcasting sector in 2000, the govern- ment’s micro-economic advisory body, the Productivity Commission, saw digital TV as an historic opportunity to reshape it, but was highly critical of the scheme adopted two years earlier. It thought the digital conversion plan was ‘at serious risk of failure’, and, in any case, continued the long history of ‘quid pro quos’ in broadcasting regulation. Broadcasters were privileged in the allocation of spec- trum and by legislative protection from further competition. In exchange, they accepted continued regulation of matters like ownership (subsequently liberal- ized) and local programming, and new obligations to transmit minimum amounts of high definition content. The Commission wanted a more open and competitive but less regulated broadcasting industry. ‘Rapid and certain conversion to digital television is the key to unlocking the spectrum’ for new players and new services. It recommended setting a firm and final date of 1 January 2009 for national ana- logue switch off; providing for early digital conversion and release of spectrum;

Jock Given | Paul Norris

and removing content restrictions and requirements on digital services. The first two recommendations were not accepted. The special content restrictions were only modified several years later, allowing the commercial networks to introduce multichannels as well as high definition simulcasts of their existing channels (Productivity Commission 2000). By delaying policy about DTT, New Zealand was able to conduct the most searching analysis of its benefits and costs. It was the only one of the three countries that tried to assess the net benefits of the transition by comparing

it with what might have occurred anyway. The UK conducted a cost benefit

analysis but well after DTT had started. It did not compare digital switchover with the pre-1998 analogue-only status quo, but with the then current situ- ation, simulcasting analogue and digital signals forever. The UK study con- cluded ‘switching off, rather than maintaining dual transmission systems, is in the economic interest of the UK’. The New Zealand study found introducing digital transmission without a commitment to shutting down analogue would

generate a net cost to the nation, using its baseline assumptions for take-up of digital free-to-air and pay TV. Net benefits could be confidently expected to accrue only if all viewers were forced to migrate (DTI/DCMS 2005; Spectrum Strategy Consultants 2006; Starks 2007: 93–95; Given 2007: 280–286). The pre- dictable resistance to publicly-supported DTT from pay TV interests in New Zealand was bolstered by this independent analysis. It meant the government needed other reasons to support DTT other than its measurable net benefits.

It found this reason in the survival of free-to-air, public service television.


The public sector has played a big role in DTT in all three countries, but only

in New Zealand was ‘Freeview’ expressed to be part of the initial policy (New

Zealand Government 2006). Three of the four goals for DTT there related to the idea encapsulated by the brand and charters of the organizations charged with bringing it to New Zealand. These were, first, ensuring all New Zealanders had free access to digital TV services (universal access); second, ensuring the future viability of government-owned broadcasting entities as vehicles for achieving policy objectives (ownership); and third, ensuring the continued presence of public service broadcasting and local content on free-to-air television (national identity). The government’s decision to largely fund two new TVNZ channels, on the basis that they were not to take advertisements (Maharey 2006b), was a radical move in a commercial-saturated media environment. The government agreed to pay the state-owned but not (from corporatization in the late 1980s until 2003) state-subsidized TVNZ $79m over six years, but only after a wrangle between the Treasury and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (responsible for broadcasting) was settled by the intervention of the Prime Minister herself. The resuscitation of DTT in the UK after the collapse of ITV Digital was critically assisted by the public sector. According to Michael Starks, ‘While there had been no political rescue, DTT in the UK survived … only by becom- ing significantly more dependent on public funding’. He says it was New Labour’s ‘generous licence fee settlement in 2000 which had made possible the BBC’s development of its full range of digital services’. Without the BBC’s licence fee funding ‘the crisis would not have been short-lived’. The BBC and

a transmission company that was once its transmission department were

awarded digital multiplexes and the BBC’s licence-fee-funded television trails

‘were what made Freeview a household name’ (Starks 2007: 86).

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

Public broadcasters have not had as dominant a role in DTT in Australia because of the strength of commercial free-to-air broadcasters. The ABC and SBS are partners, not leaders, in DTT and switchover. Successive governments treated them like the commercials for the purposes of spectrum allocation – each got an additional frequency in all areas for the duration of the simulcast period without extra charge. The costs of the public broadcasters’ new transmis- sion infrastructure were met by the government, although it also contributed half the cost of the infrastructure required by commercial broadcasters outside the metropolitan areas via rebates on their annual licence fees. No extra money was provided for channels or content specifically created for digital services until the Labor Government, elected in late-2007, agreed to support a specialist chil- dren’s channel, ABC3, in the 2009/2010 budget. The public broadcasters were not prevented from launching multichannels in the way that the commercial broad- casters were, but the previous government and the Labor opposition combined to impose tight limits on the forms they could take. In choosing to take a big a role in DTT, governments have been unusually closely involved in decisions about the content offered to audiences. Detailed plans were submitted for new channel proposals in all three countries: the BBC’s extra licence-fee-funded channels; TVNZ’s two new channels (6 targets pre- schoolers during the day, families in the early evening and adults after 8.30pm; 7 is a factual channel with current affairs, documentary and short news bulletins on the hour); and the ABC’s upcoming children’s channel. Puzzlingly, in both New Zealand and Australia, some analogue free-to- air services have remained unavailable on the DTT platform, despite broad acceptance of the view that extra content was essential to encourage take-up and the extra difficulty this creates as analogue switch off approaches. Prime, the free-to-air channel owned by Sky NZ since 2006, is not available on Freeview. Sky has always maintained that the costs of carriage would not be covered by any additional advertising revenue. The National Government’s Minister of Broadcasting has made it clear he is unhappy with Prime’s absence from the Freeview platform and Sky has undertaken to keep the situation under review. In Australia, the analogue community channels available in some cen- tres are not carried on any of the digital multiplexes. This is a big issue for these stations because viewers taking up DTT lose the ability to watch them. The National Indigenous Television Service, a publicly funded enterprise launched in 2007, is currently only available on DTT in Sydney. By contrast, Maori TV is available on Freeview DTT and DTH throughout New Zealand and the three- hour-per-day Maori language channel Te Reo is available on Freeview DTH. TVNZ reversed its initial decision to withhold the new channels 6 and 7 from the Sky pay satellite platform, which started carrying them in July 2009. Governments are contributing to the costs and work of digital switchover in different ways. An independent industry body, Digital UK, is overseeing the process, but one of its members, the BBC, has been given a major role in mak- ing it happen. A portion of the licence fee has been earmarked for the role of supporting elderly and disabled viewers needing assistance to make the switch. In Australia, the previous government copied this model but funded it directly (there has been no licence fee since 1974). The incoming Labor Government abolished the organization but established something virtually identical within government and retained its CEO. New Zealand has not yet made decisions about the processes and funding of switchover, although digital take-up is now past the 60 per cent of households level at which the government foreshadowed it would set a switchover date.

Jock Given | Paul Norris

It was Labour Governments that gave significant funding boosts – the above inflation licence fee increase to the BBC and support for new channels in NZ and Australia – but Conservative administrations that determined the first policies about DTT in both the UK and Australia, establishing generous terms for public service broadcasters’ access to spectrum in the UK and fund- ing their digital infrastructure in Australia.


Since they adopted DTT at different times, different possibilities were available in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. None had much cable TV, and relied heavily on terrestrial transmission, making the switchover task a big one. All chose a version of the European DVB-T transmission standard. Starting lat- est, New Zealand could be said to have achieved a late mover advantage. It was able to choose the MPEG4 standard for terrestrial transmission and, with the benefit of its better compression, offer high definition channels from the outset. TVOne, TV2 and TV3 were made available in HD, although it was stressed that few programmes would be in HD in the early stages. This bold move prompted considerable debate behind closed doors. The HD terrestrial box is more expensive than the satellite one – NZ$300 as opposed to around NZ$200. But within a few months of DTT’s launch, integrated television sets were available with the Freeview HD tuner built in. By early 2009 sales of these integrated sets had overtaken sales of DTT decoders. Australia too made HD available from the outset. But using the MPEG2 standard and compelled by government to transmit both HD and SD simul- casts, there was little scope for additional content, even if the legislation had allowed it. Starting earliest and also using MPEG2, no provision was initially made for HD in the UK. HD was first deployed in this market by pay satellite and cable operators. The first BBC HD channel was offered on these platforms before terrestrial. Offering HD now is more complicated and expensive for DTT broadcasters, who are reorganizing multiplex capacity, and for their viewers, who need new receivers (Ofcom 2008; Holmwood 2009). Clearly, the high take-up of Freeview in the UK has occurred without the added incentive of HD. In Australia, however, viewers cite better picture quality as one of the most important reasons for taking up DTT, as discussed further below. The impact of HD on digital free-to-air take-up in New Zealand is not yet clear, although take-up of DTT (the HD service) is now growing faster than DTH. New Zealand also confronted the choices between satellite and terrestrial earliest. A satellite-only platform was an option, ruled out because of the risk of satellite failure and extra cost of a dish for non-Sky consumers. The coun- try’s terrain, however, makes it hard to reach the entire population on a ter- restrial platform, and a significant role for satellite was always envisaged. The current Freeview terrestrial service reaches 75% of the population. The gov- ernment policy accepted this meant the other 25% would need to rely on the Freeview satellite service launched about a year earlier. Freeview would like to extend this to 85%, but this would require further investment. The UK answered the choice between satellite and terrestrial differently. The regulator, OFCOM, chose to match analogue terrestrial coverage as closely as possible with digital, requiring digital transmission from all 1100 sites cur- rently used to get television to 98.5% of UK households (Starks 2007: 96–7). Launching digital services from all those sites, however, would inevitably be slow. In the meantime, BSkyB offered a multichannel satellite service available

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

free-to-view after a one-off payment for a professionally installed set-top box. In 2008, the BBC and ITV launched their own ‘freesat’ service, offering less channels than BSkyB’s but stressing the HD content it gave access to, before the launch of HD DTT services. BSkyB emphasizes the ease of upgrading from its free satellite service to pay packages and has pitched its offer aggressively in early switchover areas. In Australia, the spread of population across a much bigger area seems to make satellite even more appropriate, but the solution is complicated by the large number of local TV services targeting particular markets (nation- ally networked programming dominates the schedules except in the early evening hours) and the number of time zones (three in winter, five in sum- mer). Governments have invested heavily in terrestrial infrastructure even in remote communities, raising the stakes as digital switchover demands either the upgrading of these facilities or the acquisition of more expensive satellite receivers by viewers.


TV’s reinvention is being helped by DTT but not simply in the ways imagined by those who developed the technology. The initial priorities of the develop- ers of the DVB standard adopted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia were ‘classical or typical of broadcasting’. These included better and more robust picture and sound quality, capacity for more channels, mobile reception on pocket receivers, and integration with other digital media. Before services commenced, these developmental priorities shifted. Improved defini- tion and mobile reception became less important to Europeans; the capacity for multichannel TV as well as radio services and digital media integration became more important. Conditional access emerged as a priority (Reimers 2001: 9–11). In launching and adapting DTT services, priorities shifted again, especially about high definition TV. Throughout these processes, the three countries set their own priorities. These, in turn, are being modified over time. In the places where the new platform has proved most popular, the mul- tichannel experience enabled by DTT appears to have been a significant influ- ence. This is most obvious in the United Kingdom, where the new channels eventually offered on Freeview were genuinely original content and not just repeats or time-shifted channels (Iosifidis 2005). The significance of addi- tional, highly-valued content is also demonstrated in the small markets in Australia where digital-only channels delivered the third commercial network that had long been available in the rest of the country. Image and sound qual- ity, so important in the early thinking about the development of digital TV, has played a very different role in DTT in the three markets. The lack of HD in the United Kingdom, both when DTT launched and relaunched as Freeview, has not prevented DTT becoming the dominant digital platform. BSkyB’s suc- cess with satellite-delivered subscription HD channels since 2006, however, inspired the Freeview partners to make some of their own available – first via satellite and cable and, with a target of late 2009, on DTT as well (Plumb 2009; Ofcom 2008). In Australia, where commercial multichannel services were banned ini- tially but at least some HD content was required, ‘better picture quality/better clarity’ is the single biggest reason for a positive attitude towards digital TV (cited by 19% of nearly 10,000 respondents in the first quarter of 2009), well ahead of ‘more channels/programs/choice’ (13%). In addition, many cited

Jock Given | Paul Norris

‘better reception’ (7%) and ‘better quality sound’ (3%), although the high numbers saying either ‘indifferent/not interested’ (19%) or ‘TV not important to me’ (8%) suggest many are buying into digital TV merely because they know that eventually they will have to (Digital Switchover Taskforce 2009). As Chris Tryhorn wrote of the British market:

What does Freeview’s story so far say about the development of mul- tichannel TV? … It may be that plenty of people never really wanted the new era of choice and are happy with a cheap one-off payment that gives them pretty much what they had before, maybe with slighter bet- ter picture quality. The digital revolution has been proclaimed from on high as a Good Thing, but many viewers may have thought they had plenty enough to watch already and now feel rather bewildered by the dizzying range of channels vying for their attention.

(Tryhorn 2006)

In New Zealand, the early launch of a satellite Freeview service deployed dig- ital TV as a solution to terrestrial reception problems. It is still too early to be confident about what may drive digital take-up in a country with relatively strong pay TV take-up (like the UK, unlike Australia) but limited government capacity to fund new content because of the small population (unlike the UK, more like Australia). Being a late mover with digital TV, as with analogue black-and-white and colour, has ensured the first services are of better techni- cal quality and use spectrum more efficiently. Despite its capacity to deliver subscription services, DTT has not generally been deployed for this purpose, though the UK did introduce a Top-Up option. On the contrary, ‘Free’ has become the centrepiece of the consumer propo- sition, encapsulated in the Freeview brand. This is a striking contrast to the expectations that developed as the first DTT services were being planned. The United Kingdom and New Zealand appeared to be moving towards the Peacock Committee’s all-pay TV future; Australian commercial broadcasters were look- ing for ways both to resist it and to be part of whatever form it took. By convinc- ing governments to make them central parts of a universally-accessible digital future, public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom and New Zealand secured their own futures, at least for the time being. Turning away from sub- scription services was a crucial part of the political deal. Governments made up the budgetary difference. For Australia’s commercial broadcasters, ‘Free’ is a less lucrative strategy. The advertisers that pay for most of the Free in Australia’s Freeview may be even harder to win over than governments. The ‘view’ in Freeview might not seem to have altered fundamentally. More channels and better, wider pictures can seem like marginal changes to the medium of television. The more revolutionary transformations promised by DTT, especially about interactivity, so far have not been big factors. BBC Red Button offers some options, but interactivity has come to television mainly through other means. Audience participation has been enabled more success- fully via SMS, where interaction triggers revenue. On-demand TV viewing has been better served by broadband streaming and downloads. The BBC has pursued this opportunity with the iPlayer, the ABC with iView and ABC Shop Downloads, TVNZ with TVNZ ondemand. The commercial networks in Australia and TVNZ ondemand are all offering ad-inserted downloads, like Hulu in the United States. This is definitely not ‘The Internet On Television’. Fanciful early claims that DTT could be the vehicle for making the Internet

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

universally available via people’s TV sets with telephone line back-channels have not eventuated. Three elements are currently converging, however, to provide another opportunity for TV broadcasters – an amalgam of HD, hard drive recording and broadband Internet connection for finding, receiving, organizing and viewing TV – and video-on-demand. This opportunity is proceeding in differ- ent ways in the three territories, but similar factors are at work everywhere – lower prices and better quality flat screen HD receivers and more HD content, cheaper and bigger hard drive recorders, and wider take-up of faster broad- band services. In the UK, a proposal for a joint venture, video-on-demand service, ‘Project Kangaroo’, was rejected by the Competition Commission

in February 2009 (Competition Commission 2009). Established by the BBC through BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and ITV, the assets of this venture were later bought by Arqiva (Sweney 2009). The BBC Trust is now considering a related joint venture proposal from the BBC Executive, ‘Project Canvas’. It aims to offer to consumers ‘subscription-free access to on-demand television serv- ices and other internet-based content, through a new broadband connected digital device’. The BBC Executive wants to promote ‘a standards based open environment for internet-connected digital television devices’ (BBC Trust 2009). In the meantime, at least one broadband-enabled digital set-top box has already been launched, accredited by Freeview, and capable of receiving pay-per-view access to films and premium content from Paramount Pictures, National Geographic and the Cartoon Network. Set-top boxes incorporat- ing the BBC’s iPlayer and capable of receiving the four planned Freeview HD channels (one each from the BBC, ITV and Channels 4 and 5) are promised (Laughlin 2009a and 2009b). In Australia and New Zealand, a similar product is being marketed under the TiVo brand; the exclusive licensee of TiVo digital video recorders in Australia and New Zealand, Hybrid Television Services, is jointly owned by Australia’s Seven Network (two-thirds) and TVNZ (one third). A broadband- connected device was launched in Australia in July 2008 and will be launched


New Zealand late in 2009. At least one Internet service provider in Australia


also offering a TiVo device combining access to digital TV with broadband

content and services, a tailored electronic programme guide and movies- on-demand (Internode 2009). In New Zealand, TVNZ’s role as both the major player in Freeview and the local TiVo licensee gives this broadcaster

an unusually big stake in the choice of equipment made by consumers. In Australia, the fragmented free-to-air TV sector seems likely to repeat the

struggle for a shared strategy that has dogged DTT throughout its life. But in both places, the hard drive recorder (once feared by commercial broadcast- ers for its ad-skipping ability) is being repositioned as another saviour for

a challenged sector – a friendly, free archive of content whose advertising

messages can never be skipped. Broadcasters’ ambitions for television are reflected in some of the adapta- tions of the Freeview brand for which trademark protection has been sought – Freeview Playback and Freeview Built-In (UK); My Freeview HD, My Freeview satellite (NZ). But others around the edges of their business have ambitions too, like the operators of the unrelated retailer ‘FreeviewShop’ in New Zealand. The real Freeview cannot stand up alone because Freeview, like television itself, is different in the markets where it is being deployed and is changing over time. By helping to universalize the multichannel TV experience, resisting the

Jock Given | Paul Norris

shift towards subscription media, and now beginning to encourage download- ing of television content and accumulating personal digital archives, the three Freeviews are influencing similar trends in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. By providing a brand encompassing the services that are con- vincing many consumers to purchase receivers to watch free-to-view digital TV, the Freeviews are helping to make it possible to switch off analogue services in three countries and to free up spectrum for other purposes. But, as always, these different places are moving in different ways and at different speeds.


BBC Trust (2009), ‘Trust assessment of “Canvas” proposals – statement’, nd, Accessed 24 July 2009. Blundell, G. (2009), ‘Is this the future of television?’, Weekend Australian, 30 May, p. 24. Browne, R. (2009), ‘Freeview “digital mutton dressed as lamb”: experts’, Sun Herald, 11 January, p. 35. Competition Commission (2009), ‘BBC Worldwide Limited, Channel Four Television Corporation and ITV plc: A Report on the Anticipated Joint Venture … relating to the Video on Demand Sector’, London: Competition Commission, 4 February. Day, P. (2000), Voice and Vision: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, vol 2, Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting History Trust. Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) (2005), ‘Cost Benefits Analysis (CBA) of Digital Switchover’, 10 February, documents/publications/CBA_Feb_2005.pdf. Accessed 16 July 2009. Digital Background Information (2006), ‘Roll-out of Free-to-air digital TV in 2007’, Document from Minister of Broadcasting, 15 June. Digital Switchover Taskforce (2009), Digital Tracker Report on Quarter 2 2009, Canberra: Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Elstein, D. (2002), ‘The politics of digital TV in the UK’, Open Democracy, 17 July, Accessed 15 July 2009. ‘Freeview: More of the Same Sh#t’, Q9JGdE-p4dQ. Accessed 9 June 2009. Freeview [Australia] (2009), ‘Freeview welcomes SBS Two’, News Release, 1 June. Freeview [New Zealand] (2008), ‘Freeview eclipses 100,000 milestone’, Media Release, 14 April. Gibson, O. (2004), ‘Dyke “promoted Freeview to save licence fee”’, The Guardian, 17 September. Given, J. (2007), ‘Switching off analogue TV’, in Kenyon, A. (ed), TV Futures:

Digital Television Policy in Australia, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. Given, J. (2003), Turning off the Television: Broadcasting’s Uncertain Future, Sydney: UNSW Press. Holmwood, L. (2009), ‘Up to 18m homes will have to retune Freeview in push for HD World Cup’, The Guardian, 20 May. Internode (2009), ‘Internode and TiVo’, Accessed 24 July 2009.

Would the Real Freeview Please Stand Up?

Iosifidis, P. (2005), ‘Digital Switchover and the role of the New BBC Services in Digital Television Take-Up’, Convergence, 11: 3, pp. 57–74. Laughlin, A. (2009a), ‘iPlayer on Freeview “as soon as possible”’, Digital Spy, 20 July, view-as-soon-as-possible.html. Accessed 24 July 2009. Laughlin, A. (2009b), ‘IP Vision launches Fetch TV Freeview+ box’, Digital Spy, 17 July, fetch-tv-freeview-box.html. Accessed 24 July 2009. Maharey, S. (New Zealand Minister of Broadcasting) (2006a), ‘Free-to-air digital TV to begin roll-out next year’, Media Release, 15 June. Maharey, S. (2006b), ‘Government backs TVNZ to move into digital era’, Media Release, 14 November. New Zealand Government (2006), ‘Digital Television Strategy’ (December), Accessed 16 July 2009. Ofcom (2008), Digital Television: Enabling New Services – Facilitating Efficiency on DTT, London: Ofcom, 3 April. Ofcom (2009), The Communications Market: Digital Progress Report Digital TV, Q2 2009, London: Ofcom. Plumb, G. (Head of Distribution Technology, BBC Operations Group) (2009), ‘What’s happening with Freeview HD?’, BBC Internet Blog, 24 June 2009,

freeview.htm. Accessed 24 July 2009. Productivity Commission (2000), Broadcasting, Report No 11, Canberra: AusInfo. Reimers, U. (2001) Digital Video Broadcasting: The International Standard for Digital Television, Berlin: Springer/Bertelsmann. Smith, D. (2003), ‘How to see a Freeview of the future’, The Observer, 7 December. Spectrum Strategy Consultants (2006), Cost Benefit Analysis of the Launch of Digital Free-to-air Television in New Zealand, Sydney: Spectrum Strategy Consultants. Starks, M. (2007), Switching to Digital Television: UK Public Policy and the Market, Bristol: Intellect. Sweney, M. (2009), ‘Arqiva understood to have paid about £8 million for Project Kangaroo assets’, The Guardian, 24 July. ‘The Numbers’ (2009), The Australian – Media, 8 June, p. 34. Tryhorn, C. (2006), ‘Is Freeview digital TV’s great white hope?’, The Guardian, OrganGrinder Blog, 1 March. Turner, A. (2009), ‘Picture not clear on Freeview’, The Age, 9 April. TVNZ (2008), Annual Report for July 2007 to June 2008, Auckland: TVNZ.


Given, J. and Norris, P. ‘Would the real Freeview please stand up?’, International Journal of Digital Television 1: 1, pp. 51–68, doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.51/1


Jock Given is Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Digital Television. His book, Turning off the Television:

Broadcasting’s Uncertain Future, was published by UNSW Press in 2003. Full biographical details are given at the end of the journal.

Jock Given | Paul Norris


Paul Norris is Head of the New Zealand Broadcasting School at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He was previously a journalist and pro- ducer at the BBC and Director of News and Current Affairs at TVNZ. He is the co-author of a number of reports on the digital future, the most recent being The Digital Future and Public Broadcasting, published by NZ On Air in November 2008.


JDTV 1 (1) pp. 69–83 Intellect Limited 2010

International Journal of Digital Television Volume 1 Number 1

© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jdtv.1.1.69/1


UK-based Consultant

White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi?



This article is an introduction to a major spectrum opportunity that is now catch-

white spaces

ing the eye of regulators, worldwide, as they seek capacity for more ubiquitous and


affordable broadband Internet access.

digital dividend

At a time when the demand for spectrum has never been greater, white spaces in television broadcast spectrum are a prime, largely unused, resource. Wireless tech- nologies have advanced rapidly over the last decade, to the point where the technical capabilities to harness white spaces now exist. The missing piece of the jigsaw has been a regulatory framework that would allow the new applications to share the UHF bands with the broadcast television and supporting services. However, spec- trum regulators are now laying the foundations for this, with the United States (FCC) and the United Kingdom (Ofcom) leading the way. The most pressing potential application of white spaces is the extension of broad- band Internet access. Broadcasters may benefit from this, as the popularity of inter- active services grows.

broadband Internet


The flight to digital has been a time of disruption and change in broadcasting. It presents both opportunities and challenges for broadcasters as they seek to retain audiences and renew business models. Meanwhile other spectrum users and economists have been eyeing the spectrum that can be released

Andrew Stirling

from broadcasting through the increased efficiency of digital transmission: the so-called digital dividend. As wireless applications and services abound and flourish, demand for spectrum is increasing year on year. The success of wireless Internet access and mobile broadband, in particular, has been a major driver. Advances in wireless technology and the growth in economic benefits from wireless services and applications are such that any spare capacity is now sought after, especially in spectrum below 3 GHz. Spectrum in the broadcast television bands (470–863 MHz) is of particular interest because of the favour- able coverage costs it brings compared to the higher frequencies currently used to provide wireless Internet access. However, not all the ‘gold’ is to be found in spectrum that can be released from broadcasting, where much of the regulatory focus has been. There remains considerable spare capacity locked up in the part of the UHF which will be retained for broadcasting – referred to as the interleaved spectrum. This spare capacity is known as white spaces.


White spaces are the gaps left between transmitters operating on the same channel. Their purpose is to prevent interference that would occur in any overlap and they are integral to broadcast service planning – an art that has advanced over many decades. White spaces are fragmented, by definition, and are typically more abundant in rural areas – which are often a lower prior- ity for broadcast coverage. Spectrum is allocated internationally for broadcasters and administered within regions. National and regional broadcast television networks rely on careful planning of the available spectrum, with coordination between neigh- bouring countries adding diplomatic complexity to the technical difficulties. To ensure that interference is avoided for typically at least 99 per cent of the time, restrictions are placed on the power that can be radiated from each tel- evision transmitter site. These restrictions are based on the spectrum engi- neers’ understanding of propagation characteristics, including allowance for weather, terrain variation etc. The planning criteria have evolved over dec- ades, with practical experience of broadcasting and an improving understand- ing of propagation. The safety margin between broadcast services defines the white spaces. Over time, broadcasters realized that they could use low power transmis- sion for programme making without causing interference. Thus equipment such as wireless microphones and in-ear monitors found a convenient home in the UHF band, in the gaps left by broadcasters. Over time, use of such equipment has broadened to include theatres and a wide range of other public venues. Nonetheless, white space use remains confined to a niche of professional/semi professional users, typically in a few well-defined locations.


White space has provided a convenient shelter for programme making and special events (PMSE) applications for many years. The most common appli- cation is the wireless microphone, which is much used in television and theatres. Because these are low power applications, it is possible for them to co-exist with broadcast services.

White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi?

PMSE has been recognized by the ITU as an application enjoying secondary rights to spectrum, meaning that they have no rights to interference protection from broadcast applications, which are primary. PMSE’s access to spectrum is managed in a variety of ways. Much use is unlicensed, either using license-by-rule channels or illegally using channels where a licence is required (Broadcast Engineering 2008). The UK model, administered on Ofcom’s behalf by JFMG, is interesting because PMSE users can book the capacity online, coordinated through a database. Database coordination of white space, as we shall see, is a concept which is set to be at the heart of the future exploitation of white spaces. PMSE use of white spaces has continued to grow, with widespread adop- tion of wireless products that bring convenience to a wide variety of studio and theatrical productions as well as to live events. This success has driven demand for white space capacity, beyond the anticipated post-switchover limit in some areas (Ofcom 2006: 10). Examples of locations and events, where post-switchover shortages could occur, include the film and TV studios at Shepperton and the British Grand Prix. At the premium end of the market, the emergence of ‘high definition’ microphones could increase the spectrum requirements in return for greater fidelity (Ofcom 2009: 3). At the other end of the quality range, low-cost wire- less microphones equipped with spectrum scanners are reported to be coming on the market, broadening the use of white spaces, even if illegally. However, whilst PMSE use of white spaces has been growing, it is typically confined to certain locations such as production studios, thea- tres and other public auditoriums and it does not use the spectrum for 24 hours a day. Away from the venues where PMSE is in use, there is little, if any, use of white spaces. The next section considers how much white space might realistically be available.


We have already discussed how white spaces are a function of the way TV networks are planned. At any given transmitter site, there will be a number of channels which are not in use for television services. Broadcast network plan- ning priorities are linked to population density, so rural areas typically have more white space available than urban areas, with larger contiguous blocks of unused channels available. The amount of white space capacity varies with the broadcast network configuration, but remains significant across the world. For example:

• Post-switchover, the UK will have six digital terrestrial TV (DTT) multi- plexes operating nationwide. Since UK broadcast capacity in UHF will have shrunk to around thirty channels by then, this leaves around 24 channels which are not required at any given transmitter site. (Each chan- nel is 8 MHz wide)

• Across Europe, planners have allowed for around seven to eight DTT mul- tiplexes per country

• In Beijing and Shanghai, we understand that there are up to ten channels in use

• A study in the US showed that consumers have, on average, between fifteen and twenty free channels available to them (Mishra and Sahai 2005: 1)

Andrew Stirling

Andrew Stirling Source: Ofcom. Figure 1: White spaces capacity at locations across the UK. Studies conducted

Source: Ofcom.

Figure 1: White spaces capacity at locations across the UK.

Studies conducted by Ofcom in the UK (Ofcom 2009: 4) suggest that over 90 per cent of the population could have access to at least 100 MHz, aggregated across the interleaved spectrum. They also estimate that around 50 per cent of the population could have access to 150 MHz or greater and some rural com- munities could enjoy over 200 MHz of this spare capacity.


Some have predicted that white spaces will gradually disappear through introduction of new services by broadcasters and others. This seems unlikely because terrestrial broadcasting is planned around relatively inflexible ‘high power – high tower’ distribution networks. Whilst roll-out and operating costs may be lower with such sparse networks, they impose a cost in terms of spectrum efficiency, in the form of:

1. Geographic gaps that need to be left ‘fallow’, so that transmitters using the same frequency do not overlap and interfere with each other

2. Channels adjacent to the transmissions that are typically left free to ease receiver requirements

3. Lack of flexibility to reconfigure broadcast networks

The lack of flexibility arises from the high cost of infrastructure, scarcity of suit- able sites and not least from the network planning process. The fact that high power transmissions inevitably spill over international borders means that broad- cast network planning requires extensive coordination with administrations in

White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi?

neighbouring countries. In Region 1 (Europe, Africa, the Middle East), the first such exercise, for analogue television in the UHF bands, was in Stockholm in 1960. The plan and rules were updated in 1997 to allow digital services to com- mence, alongside analogue services. In 2006, the plan was replaced with an all-digital broadcast plan covering the 120 countries in Region 1. This was a mammoth exercise, requiring years of preparation and costing tens of millions of Euros. This latest plan enables administrations to make changes to their own implementation, such as introducing new services, provided they stay within the ‘interference allowance’ that has been agreed. In principle, broadcasters could change to lower power, more dense, transmitter networks. This would improve indoor coverage for portables as well as reducing the impact on service planning in neighbouring countries. However, the costs of such networks could be an order of magnitude higher to roll-out and operate and therefore do not fit well with current broadcast business models. Some argue that the move to single frequency terrestrial networks (SFNs) eliminates geographic white spaces, because no gaps need be left between transmitter coverage areas. (The transmitters within an SFN reinforce rather than interfere with each other, using a special feature of the digital terres- trial modulation technology.) This is correct within the area covered by the transmitters operating in such a network, however the SFNs themselves have boundaries. Although, in principle, it might be possible to build SFNs cov- ering very large regions, the differing content requirements of regions and countries mean that such networks need to be partitioned and suitable gaps left between those using the same frequency. Another limitation on the intro- duction of SFNs is the spacing of transmitters – existing sites may not be suf- ficiently closely spaced.


The growing use of wireless Internet access (particularly mobile broadband) is forcing operators to look for more capacity. Rising expectations on connec- tion speed will put still further pressure on capacity. Some of this demand can be met through re-use of existing spectrum, by deploying new technologies such as LTE, but some will need to come from ‘new’ spectrum. New spectrum becomes available through either clearing the bands of existing applications or enabling new ways of sharing – as is the case with white spaces. Regulators are seeking to ensure that this new spectrum is put to the best use by making choices over how it is allocated. The conventional means of achieving this is through licensing, by which normally exclusive rights are awarded to the ‘most deserving’ applicant for the spectrum. The criteria for determining the winning applicant vary from a potentially complex cocktail of requirements, in the case of the beauty parade allocation method, through to simply the largest bid, in the case of the auction method. The advantage of exclusivity is significant for service providers and their backers: sufficient to underpin hundreds of millions of Euros of roll-out investment in some cases. The disadvantage of exclusivity is that the value to consumers and the econ- omy is limited by the investment capacity or interest of the licensee. Further, the available spectrum may have had to be partitioned to allow a number of potential licensees to act as competitors. This was the case in awarding spectrum for third generation mobile services, with five licences offered in the UK. Finally, regulators generally find it easier dealing with the types of big players that typically emerge from a licensing approach. For the reasons given

Andrew Stirling

above, licensing on an exclusive basis remains the prime means of controlling access to spectrum across the world. Whilst the means of allocating licenses has gradually shifted from a government-led approach towards more market- driven approaches – epitomized by spectrum auctions – exclusivity of access remains the norm across much of the most valuable spectrum. This includes the vast majority of spectrum below 3 GHz. However, licensing has its limits. Acquiring a licence to use spectrum can be a costly and lengthy process. Even measures allowing spectrum licences to be traded have had limited effect thus far on the ‘liquidity’ of spectrum. Licensing also becomes cumbersome when dealing with heavily fragmented spectrum such as white space, because the transaction costs start to approach or even exceed the value that could be extracted. This is a key reason why white space has remained relatively under-used. Major operators are generally more interested in acquiring pan-national spec- trum blocks, to enhance their market scale, than foraging for spare fragments such as can be found amongst the undergrowth of terrestrial broadcasting.


License-by-rule (also known as licence-exemption) complements conventional licensing by lowering the spectrum access barrier that faces new wireless technol-

ogies. When regulators implement license-by-rule in a band, they open a means of accessing the spectrum without having to apply for a licence. This means that anyone can use the band in question, provided that they adhere to the rules laid down by the regulator for this purpose; in most cases these rules are satisfied by the equipment manufacturers, so that end-users are absolved of any require- ment to acquire skills or exercise care in their application of the devices. License-by-rule users are allowed to operate on the basis that they do not cause harmful interference to licensed spectrum users and they have no rights to protection against interference caused to them by other legal users of the spectrum – whether licensed or licensed-by-rule. The rules are defined by the regulator to enable the band to be shared effectively, between those using it on a license-by-rule basis and those using

it under the terms of a licence. Users of adjacent bands also need to be pro-

tected from harmful interference. The main constraint with license-by-rule

devices is on the transmission power that they may use, since this is a major factor in determining the potential to cause interference. Lower transmission power restricts the range of applications that are possible, but generally enables

a greater number of users in a given area. For example, Wi-Fi access points are limited to a transmission power of 100 mW, which limits their range to tens of metres. This means that other access points within this range will probably need to operate on other chan- nels, in order to avoid interference. By encapsulating the interference protection in device rules, regulators are thus able to eliminate the need for licensing in the given band and enable users to share the spectrum. A major benefit of the license-by-rule approach is that it is scalable and works well, regardless of how fragmented the spectrum is geographically. Above a certain level of fragmentation, the transaction costs involved in con- ventional licensing outweigh the perceived value. In contrast, license-by-rule works equally well in fragmented spectrum such as white spaces in UHF, as it does in 2.4 GHz, which is available worldwide.

White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi?

Another benefit of license-by-rule is that it avoids the partitioning that often applies when spectrum is licensed conventionally, as noted earlier in the third generation mobile networks example. Finally, license-by-rule effectively devolves power to end-users and their local communities, who can make their own decisions, for exam- ple, on whether and when to invest in improving their Internet connection. Commercial licence-holding operators tend to focus their infrastructure roll- out on more densely populated areas, where payback will occur more quickly. This means that rural communities are usually the last to enjoy the benefits of wireless/mobile broadband.


Spectrum sharing is now a familiar fact of life, with millions of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices in everyday use across the world, all using the 2.4 GHz band. Whilst some experts cite interference in the 2.4 GHz band (Mass 2009: 82) as an issue, Wi-Fi hotspots and home use continue to grow. Some features of the 2.4 GHz band are less than ideal:

• The 2.4 GHz band was considered ‘junk’ spectrum, when released by regulators on a licence-exempt basis. Electromagnetic pollution from microwave ovens played a major role in this. Lack of license-by-rule capacity in other bands forced a number of different technologies to co-habit

• In a way, the band is like a ‘wireless dark ages’ core sample in which vari- ous stages of wireless evolution can be observed. Species arriving later, such as Bluetooth and newer versions of Wi-Fi technology (e.g. 802.11n) have developed better coping strategies for this interference-prone region of spectrum and use the bandwidth available more efficiently.

Given the substantial industry investment that will be needed to implement cost-effective white space technology, we can expect at least some coopera- tion between groups developing standards; each group drawing on the valu- able experience from 2.4 GHz in both reducing interference and mitigating its effects. In the absence of regulatory coordination between license-by-rule users, there is an opportunity for technology to achieve some of the benefits of coor- dination, applying on a much more local level than regulators could have attempted. Some of the coordination features may be integrated into stand- ards whilst other features may be dynamic, adapting to the conditions that the devices find when they are operating. The main techniques that white space device manufacturers can use to avoid interference with each other’s products and maximize efficiency of use are:

Listen before talk – devices check whether a signal is present on a channel before transmitting

Coordination between devices to determine which channels are vacant – e.g. by sharing lists gathered from a central database or by shar- ing the results of local spectrum sensing

Minimization of the transmission power used – communicating devices coordinate to reduce the transmission power to the minimum level needed for reliable communication, in each case

Andrew Stirling

The last technique, minimization of power, relies on the transmitting device being aware of the reception margin at the receiver. The transmission power can then be reduced, until the remaining margin is just sufficient to ensure sufficiently reliable communication. This is helpful for energy consumption as well as more efficient use of spectrum. If interference does occur between devices, there are techniques for miti- gating its impact on applications:

• Robust modulation techniques, which allow desired signals to be recov- ered more reliably by receivers

• Error protection, which enables receivers to detect when errors have occurred and recover from them

• Frequency diversity, enabling receivers to avoid channels which are badly affected by interference


The favourable propagation characteristics of UHF mean that white spaces are suitable for a wide range of wireless applications (Tonge and De Vries 2007: 100). These include:

• Internet access using cellular, hotspot or mesh configurations, for exam- ple, to serve communities and campuses

• In-home content distribution

• Remote patient monitoring and elderly care

• Games

• Tracking of people, animals and assets

• Industrial automation and control

• Agricultural and other land use, where, for example, the use of remote wireless sensors might increase management efficiency

• Home automation and control

• Security for buildings and communities

• Public safety

Essentially, white spaces are a good medium for applications that require reli- able home-wide or even neighbourhood-wide coverage. From a public policy perspective, the most important of these is Internet access, especially given its economic significance and the fact that many areas still lack an adequate connection.


White space complements an existing range of network interfaces that can be included in devices; these are likely to take a variety of forms, some familiar:

• Access points — perhaps combining Wi-Fi and White Space interfaces

• Mobile communications device, adding white spaces to the formidable list that many such devices already have (2G, 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc.)

• Home media devices, such as a TV, set-top box or server

The key point to note is that communication in white spaces complements networks that use other parts of the spectrum. Thus it is likely that existing

White Spaces – the New Wi-Fi?

types of device acquire white space interfaces alongside other more estab- lished interfaces.


The Internet is the key projected application for white spaces. Across the world there is a growing demand for ubiquitous and affordable Internet access. Governments recognize the economic and social value that this can bring and are increasingly willing to provide public support for providing access. Broadcasters too are finding that audiences value interactive services more than ever and are facing demands from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to support the cost of interactive network capacity, alongside their broadcast networks. Could white spaces in the broadcast band provide part of the answer? Whilst the ideal Internet access medium is optical fibre, the economics of fibre roll-out are such that it will be a long time before fibre reaches all homes and offices – if indeed it ever does. There are many parts of the developed and developing world where wireless Internet access will remain the strongest platform for the foreseeable future. However, although cheaper than fixed wire/fibre-based alternatives, wire- less access is still costly to provide – particularly in the bands that are typically made available for its deployment, such as 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 5 GHz. In contrast, the more favourable coverage costs of the UHF bands enable previ- ously unviable locations to be brought within reach. A growing element of the demand for Internet access will be met through licensed spectrum, including released sections of the UHF, as third or fourth- generation mobile networks are rolled out. However, network operators face enormous costs and are likely to prioritize roll-out in areas of higher popu- lation density and revenue potential. Where there is a commercial case for deploying new technology in licensed UHF in rural areas, the emphasis may be on reducing operating costs rather than enhancing performance. Complementing commercial networks which use licensed spectrum, white spaces could enable local communities to improve their own Internet access, especially when combined with networks in other licence-exempt bands. A license-by-rule regime in white spaces would allow them to construct a wire- less access network independently of licensed operators, who generally have little time for such ventures. Community networks would still require high quality backhaul, perhaps via fibre to a convenient local hub, but could other- wise be self-sufficient. Over time, as the community networks demonstrate viability, they may well be acquired by larger operators. Thus white space capacity may help incubate additions to the major national or regional networks, as well as facil- itating local initiative. Finally, because of the superior propagation through walls at UHF fre- quencies, it may be possible to use white space networks to provide access inside houses, eliminating the need for an external access point and internal distribution network (at least for some buildings). This would save hundreds of Euros per building for the installation and eliminate on-going management costs for end-users. Google coined the term ‘Wi-Fi on steroids’ at one point in talking about the potential of white spaces. With up to around 200 MHz of capacity in some locations, this might not be an exaggeration.

Andrew Stirling


White space networks do not need to stop at delivering content and services to the home: UHF’s favourable propagation characteristics enable them to be useful for in-home distribution too. Growing consumer expectations on convenience of access to content and services within the home is raising industry interest in developing new high capacity in-home networks. Wireless technologies are increasingly used to improve ease of setting up systems and reduce both the inconvenience and negative visual impact of cabling. Consumers want to be in control and able to access their digital content wherever they are in their home. Even outside the home, consumers value access to familiar content and services – as products such as those from Sling Media have demonstrated. As the cost of adding wireless network interfaces falls, more consumer prod- ucts are acquiring such interfaces: particularly devices that handle digital content. Two technical challenges must be faced as home networking embraces in-home content distribution:

• Video connections require considerable capacity, especially when high definition content is to be conveyed