The blurred future of Ireland's digital plans

 

It’s been years in coming, and will cost €70 million, but RTÉ is finally ready to unveil its digital service. As Ireland phases out the analogue era, will the five new channels offer anything fresh – and will most of us even notice?

IT IS THE DAWN of a new age in television, a paradigm shift which will change viewing habits and consumer behaviour forever. That, at least, is the theory behind Saorview, RTÉ’s free-to-air digital terrestial television (DTT) service. More homegrown channels, greater picture and sound clarity, interactive services, huge commercial potential: launch of a domestic DTT service in May – in advance of the existing analogue transmission signal being shut off across Europe late next year – promises all this. Little wonder, that Saorview is being described as a once-in-a-generation change.

“We haven’t talked about television transmission in 50 years,” says Mary Curtis, RTÉ’s director of digital switchover. “Now we’re using words like analogue and digital. It is very exciting, because you’re going to get this suite of services, along with other broadcasters. The pictures are going to be fantastic, the sound is going to be fantastic. It’s a new era in broadcasting.”

Yet even as a new advertising campaign commences this week to promote Saorview, the transition may pass unnoticed by many Irish viewers. For those households that still exclusively watch their television via the analogue service – the “four channel land” of popular euphemism – DTT will bring a change in technology, as well as introducing five new RTÉ stations. But for the majority of the country’s consumers, who receive their TV from satellite providers such as Sky or cable companies like UPC, the changeover will barely register. As far as most Irish viewers are concerned, the television will not be revolutionised.

Nor is Saorview quite the multi-channel bonanza that it seems for the approximately 340,000 analogue-only households at whom it is primarily targeted. The five new channels – RTÉ Two HD, RTÉ Aertel Digital, RTÉ jr, RTÉ One + 1 and RTÉ News Now – are essentially extensions of existing output, rather than outlets for new material. Meanwhile, the decision to allow RTÉ to launch so many new services has been criticised by TV3, which fears the public broadcaster will damage competition.

Taken alongside the practical problems of making the digital switchover – from its long gestation in an evolving media world, to the process of informing the affected viewers and shelling out for new equipment – the advent of DTT seems less like an exciting new era and more akin to a laborious chore that leaves everyone unhappy. But the DTT switchover is an important event in Irish broadcasting, if not necessarily for the obvious reasons.

At the most basic level, Saorview is offering a pared-down, Irish-oriented version of the digital packages familiar to cable and satellite customers. Saorview customers will have a set-top box converting the signal from (most) existing aerials, bringing up an electronic programme guide (EPG) displaying the channels on offer: RTÉ One plus the five new services, TV3, TG4 and – maybe – 3e.

At first glance, Saorview appears to be offering a much-expanded suite of RTÉ services, but there is not much that is really new. RTÉ Two HD will replace RTÉ Two, allowing broadcast of its sport-heavy output in high definition. RTÉ One + 1 is a catch-up service, re-broadcasting the network’s main station with an hour’s delay. Aertel Digital is an enhanced version of RTÉ’s teletext service, and News Now basically replicates the network’s 24-hour online news site, with regular news bulletins. The children’s channel, RTÉ jr, is currently available online and on UPC, though it will boast new programming. It is a long way from UK digital channels such as BBC3 and BBC4, which have been platforms for original programming.

“In an ideal world, we’d love to have an arts channel or a music channel but in the current climate all these things cost,” says Curtis. “So in terms of these particular services, RTÉ is trying to ensure it gets the best value from what it does already for very little cost.”

Such economy makes sense at a time when a cash-strapped RTÉ is seeking up to 60 job cuts. But even this slim package has drawn fire from TV3, with David McRedmond, the station’s CEO, claiming RTÉ’s plans will increase the network’s domination of the domestic market.

“We’re horrified by them, we think it’s a joke,” says McRedmond. “We’re going to be the only country in Europe with eight state channels. This is madness at a time when the State can barely afford two channels.”

Some RTÉ proposals are based around giving more prime-time exposure to the network’s large stock of acquisitions exercises. McRedmond sees such activities as hoarding at the expense of competitors. Montrose counters that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) approved the new channels after carrying out a sectoral impact report, which McRedmond, in turn, says was not made available in full to TV3.

The TV3 chief is also concerned that RTÉ operates both the digital broadcasting platform, Saorview, and the bulk of the channels on offer. “It would be as if Aer Lingus owned Dublin airport and only allowed Ryanair two flights out a day,” he says. As it is, TV3 has yet to confirm whether its sister channel, 3e, will be broadcast on Saorview. “We have to pay [Saorview] for transmitting 3e, so there’s a question mark over the viability of putting up channels,” McRedmond says.

Nor has Saorview any plans to carry UK channels, such as fellow public broadcaster the BBC. “I can’t see a scenario where the BBC would be applying to be on Saorview because they would have separate carriage arrangements with other platforms,” such as Sky and UPC, says Curtis.

That Ireland is only getting its DTT platform 18 months or so before the EU-wide shutdown of the analogue signal is testament to the tangled history of the medium’s development here. Originally, DTT was supposed to consist of commercial platforms with RTÉ providing a public service component. Licences were awarded to two consortiums in succession – Boxer, then OneVision – as negotiations broke down between the commercial bodies and RTÉ NL, the Montrose offshoot which owns the digital transmission network now called Saorview.

The delays have meant that DTT has become less attractive than it once was. Since 2002, the UK has had its own DTT service, Freeview (jointly run by five broadcasters), but the absence of such a platform in Ireland has allowed Sky to become the biggest provider of television in Ireland, reaching 637,000 homes. The exclusively analogue demographic is disproportionately weighted toward elderly, rural and lower-income households, lessening its commercial appeal.

Meanwhile, the growth of internet television – from the RTÉ Player to Magnet Web TV, which currently offers all domestic channels online – means that DTT is no longer the cutting edge technology it once was. “The case is marginal for DTT, because it is so late,” says McRedmond.

RTÉ uses a public service argument to justify the decision to push on with its own digital services: to guarantee free-to-air television for all sectors in the post-analogue world. The forthcoming information campaign – featuring ads, a new website and even a call centre – aims to reach people who might be otherwise sidelined by changing technology.

“We believe in universal access, in trying to bridge the digital divide,” says Rory Coveney, RTÉ Digital Switchover’s communications manager.

At the moment, 90 per cent of the Republic can receive the DTT signal, due to rise to 97 per cent in May and to 98 per cent by the end of 2012, by which time RTÉ will have invested €70 million in the transmission infrastructure. This is not a purely altruistic act: the network is obliged under the Broadcasting Act 2009 to replicate current analogue coverage levels. But the project has potential side benefits for the broadcaster, offering it digital access to homes unable to receive broadband.

“The digital possibilities are manifold,” says Curtis. “We can get this first hurdle over with and then see what’s happening next.”

Such possible advantages could benefit the private sector as well: the BAI is again tentatively seeking “expressions of interest” from other broadcasters about providing DTT content.

But with its suite of new stations, RTÉ has a head start. The manner in which Pat Carey, the outgoing, caretaker minister for communications, approved the new channels two days before the election alarms McRedmond: “It just stinks.” TV3 has written to Pat Rabbitte, the new communications minister, asking him to review the matter.

Coveney see things differently. “This is an example where RTÉ is doing something that is very much of value to the country,” he says. “It can grow in the future and in terms of content the infrastructure is vital for that to happen, but the crucial thing is making that transition happen.”

Whatever happens, the advent of DTT is a pivotal event in Irish broadcasting, which will re-align the balance between the private and public sectors: which of these sides benefits most remains to be seen. Just don’t expect too many surprises on screen.

THE EQUIPMENT YOU NEED

The DTT signal can be received on all televisions from most aerials using a Saorview approved set-top box, due to retail at about €100. So far, only two models have been approved, both by Walker Technology Products, though more are promised before May. In addition some households may need to adjust or replace their aerial: standard installation costs vary but they average about €140-€160. Saorview recommends the purchase of an integrated digital television for those purchasing a new set: price range of about €180-€430.

THE NEW SERVICES

RTÉ TWO HD

The existing RTÉ Two schedule, with selected programmes, such as sport or US drama, broadcast in high definition, other shows “up-converted” to HD.

RTÉ NEWS NOW

24-hour news channel, using live and looped material from RTÉ’s TV and radio coverage, with regular bulletins. It will carry no advertising.

RTÉ JR

Channel aimed at children under six, with a looped schedule running throughout the day, featuring homegrown and foreign programming, both live and animated. It will carry no advertising.

RTÉ ONE + 1

Catch-up service for RTÉ One, with primetime output broadcast on a one-hour delay.

RTÉ AERTEL DIGITAL

Enhanced version of the Aertel analogue teletext service, with new layout and faster access.