The viability of Saorview, the free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) service operated by RTÉ, will become "questionable" sometime after 2020, according to a report commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
Rejecting the case for reopening the licensing process for a commercial DTT service, consultants Oliver & Ohlbaum conclude that DTT is a “limited” and “expensive” means of transmitting television. Saorview’s future is “not assured”, it said, and viewers will drift away from the service towards pay-TV providers unless the content and functionality available on the platform is developed.
“Without a wider offering, we believe that Saorview will continue to decline in popularity and will reach a point sometime after 2020 at which its economics become questionable,” the report states.
Although they said Saorview "remains an important platform" for broadcasters, particularly RTÉ and TG4, to reach audiences, the London-based consultants admitted they were "pessimistic" about its future. "The threat to DTT is that it increasingly looks and feels like a legacy platform."
It recommends RTÉ should "champion" the development of new functionality on Saorview and that TV3 should "be given a stronger voice" in its operation to "prevent Saorview becoming associated completely with RTÉ".
The BAI has now decided not to reopen the licensing process for a commercial DTT service, following Oliver & Ohlbaum’s finding that DTT is now even less likely to attract investor interest than it was in 2009 and 2010, when all three bidding consortiums withdrew from the initial licensing process.
Viewers may have settled on “the optimum digital offering for their home” during the crucial run-up period to the switch-off of analogue services in October 2012, the report notes.
“Investors are likely to judge DTT a less appealing technology to fund than it was five years ago when fully 30 per cent of Irish households were still watching analogue TV and digital switchover was a driver of migration to digital platforms.”
The regulator agreed yesterday there was "no statutory purpose" to licensing commercial DTT. BAI chairman Bob Collins said the decision had policy implications for the Government and the regulator and that he would welcome the opportunity to discuss the findings of the report with Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte "at an early date".