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2: Harnessing new technologies to deliver services
Australia's national broadcasters have embraced digital technology. The ABC was one of Australia's first media organisations to launch its own website in 1995. It expanded into broadband video and interactive television in 2001 and launched one of the first digital multichannels in 2005.1 It has distributed content to mobiles since 2002, and launched a full-screen internet television service (iView) in July 2008.
SBS has embarked on a similar path. In 2002, it launched a foreign news digital multichannel, the World News Channel. SBS Radio Online was launched in 2001, with all 68 language programs available on demand by 2003. In 2007, SBS commenced an online video initiative and now maintains more than 130 websites that deliver content for its programs. Users have responded positively to these initiatives.
- In 2006-07, ABC Online reached an average of 2.1 million unique users per month, while an average of more than 2 million monthly downloads of ABC podcast files were registered in the first six months of 2007.2
- Similarly, SBS registered more than 450 000 unique browsers per month in 2006-07 and over this period a total of 645 000 radio audio podcasts and 211 000 video podcasts were downloaded.3
An outline of the emerging technologies and trends in media and broadcasting can be found in Appendix C.
Digital television and beyond
The full conversion of television to digital by December 2013 will mean the end of analog and digital simulcasting. This will substantially reduce transmission costs and will potentially make spectrum available for the provision of new services (the so-called 'digital dividend').
For national broadcasting, there are both short-term and longer-term issues associated with the transition to a fully digital television environment.
In the short term, there is the question of how the national broadcasters can best support the conversion of Australian households to digital that will be necessary for the cessation of analog signals by December 2013.
Two of the key drivers for digital television take-up are improved picture quality and the availability of additional services.4 National broadcasters could enhance the attractiveness of digital television by offering new programming and channels using their existing spectrum and/or providing more high-definition (HD) programming (beyond their current requirement for 1040 hours per year).
Both the ABC and SBS have flagged proposals for an increase in the number of digital television channels they provide.
- The ABC's 2020 vision would entail four digital television channels in addition to the current 'ABC1' and 'ABC2': a children's channel ('ABC3'), a news and public information channel ('ABC4'), an education channel ('ABC5') and a 'best-of-overseas' channel ('ABC6').
- SBS aims to provide four television channels in addition to the current main channel by 2020: an international channel to replace the existing World News Channel (to be known as 'SBS World'); and two additional channels that could be themed around genre or language region ('SBS3' and 'SBS4').
New channels such as these, or additional high-definition programming, would enhance the attractiveness of the digital television offering. However, they would also entail increased costs, particularly those associated with the production or commissioning of new Australian content.
In the longer term, any expansion of the number of television channels as envisaged by the broadcasters would also create spectrum demands. It will be essential, therefore, that they maximise efficiency and effectiveness in their delivery platforms.
At present, the two broadcasters manage and procure distribution and transmission services for their digital television content independently.
There may be scope to consider whether the ABC and SBSwhile retaining separate identities and programmingcould jointly utilise a shared 'platform' to manage common elements of digital broadcasting technology and infrastructure. This could yield savings, particularly in relation to transmission and distribution services, as discussed in section 7, 'Efficient delivery of services'.
Other options include the 'pooling' or sharing of transmission capacity between the two broadcasters to enhance efficiency and, ultimately, the amount of national broadcasting content they distribute.
The role of broadband
The Australian Government's National Broadband Network program will facilitate the rollout of a high-speed broadband network, which is planned to provide download speeds of at least 12 megabits per second to 98 per cent of Australian homes and businesses.
As noted above, the ABC and SBS already utilise their online platforms to provide a range of multimedia and interactive content, some of which could not be provided via terrestrial broadcast platforms. This content includes audio streaming of radio, audio and video downloading of television and radio programs, and on-demand television services.
SBS has indicated that it wishes to make all of its existing and new content available streamed and on-demand via broadband. Similarly, the ABC has indicated that it wishes to support its proposed digital television and radio services with broadband delivery.
The provision of innovative and attractive content online may stimulate consumer take-up of broadband, as is occurring with digital television. At the very least, it will be important for the national broadcasters to be aware of the changing patterns of consumer use of internet-based platforms to ensure their services are targeted to areas of greatest impact, consistent with their charters.
However, the greater cost per user to a national broadcaster from moving to an online platform needs to be considered. Traditional radio and television broadcasting has a low or zero marginal cost per additional user. In other words, once a broadcaster has established facilities in a particular location, if an additional listener or viewer tunes in it costs the broadcaster nothing.
In contrast, the cost of providing bandwidth-intensive content to audiences increases with demand, particularly for media-rich content such as video. The more viewers who download content simultaneously, the more servers and bandwidth the broadcaster needs. Although cost factors will change over time, they need to be considered in decisions about national broadcasters' use of services supplied through broadband internet.
Universality and localism
Choice of technology by the national broadcasters is particularly relevant for two of the key objectives of national broadcasting: universality and localism. Both of these functions have been integral to the shape of national broadcasting in Australia, particularly the activities of the ABC. This was again emphasised in the Final Report of the Australia 2020 Summit:
Public broadcasting should be funded so that it can deliver to all Australians, wherever they live, free of charge.
The public broadcasters [should be] a hub of the national conversationthe national 'town hall'.
At present, the national broadcasters use predominantly terrestrial broadcasting technologies (television and radio) to achieve full geographic coverage. Alternative technologiespossibly internet-basedmay offer options for improved delivery of services to regional and remote areas of Australia.
Although broadband availability is yet to match that of terrestrial broadcasting services, particularly AM radio and satellite, this is likely to change over the coming decade. The costs of information technology equipment and broadband access are also likely to reduce over time, although they may not match the coverage and portability of analog radio receivers.
At the local level, broadband is likely to have particular importance. A trend toward networking and syndication of content (that is, sharing of content such as a particular radio show among a number of radio stations from a central source), driven by cost pressures, has been evident across the commercial media for many years. Broadband may provide an opportunity for national broadcasting to address this in a cost-effective manner through enhanced local services.
Both the ABC and SBS have indicated a desire to expand their online platforms to create a 'town square' for community participation: the ABC in relation to local communities and SBS in relation to language communities.
Use of archives
The ABC and SBS possess a significant archive of past program material for which they hold the copyright. Broadband platforms offer scope for this resource to be more fully exploited and for audiences to access the depth of programming on-demand.
To date, the national broadcasters have typically approached online program delivery differently to their delivery of physical products. Programs accessed online (podcast, vodcast or streamed) have generally been free of charge, whereas physical merchandise (such as DVDs, books and clothing) has been sold.
The current discrepancy between the pricing of online and physical merchandise raises the question about whether online archival material should continue to be made available free of charge, or whether it should be sold like physical merchandise. This issue is discussed in more detail in section 7.
Creativity and innovation
Forays by the ABC and SBS into new technologies are broadly consistent with their charter obligations to provide Australians with high-quality, innovative broadcasting services. However, there is a question as to whether the national broadcasters should be the 'early adopters' of emerging technologies and formats, particularly in the online environment.
National broadcaster support for cutting-edge technology or experimental programming could stimulate innovation and risk-taking within Australia's production and creative sectors. It might also ensure that technology change does not prevent some types of media platform users from accessing the national broadcasters.
At this same time, the early adopter role exposes the national broadcastersand ultimately Australian taxpayersto the risks of changing consumer preferences or technologies that may fail to gain a critical mass or wide implementation. In addition, the benefits of being an early adopter may not accrue to the national broadcasters themselves but to commercial service providers who take the product over once it is proven and expand it to the mainstream.
Questions: Harnessing new technologies to deliver services
- What is the appropriate role for the national broadcasters in the conversion to digital television and the implementation of digital radio?
- Are there opportunities for the national broadcasters to more effectively fulfil the objectives of universal access and the provision of local content by utilising new delivery platforms such as broadband internet?
- The national broadcasters, particularly the ABC, have substantial archives of material. Are there ways these archives can be more effectively used and accessed?
- Is there a role for the national broadcasters to be early adopters of new technologies and program formats?
- The ABC operated a digital children's television channelABC Kidsbetween August 2001 and June 2003. The service closed due to lack of funding.
- Podcasts include content from ABC Radio networks, ABC News and audio from ABC Television (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Annual Report 2007).
- Special Broadcasting Service, Annual Report 2006-07.
- Eureka Strategic Research, Digital Television in Australian Homes2007, conducted for the Australian Communications and Media Authority, February 2008.