19 Feb 2017

Ten years in TV under the radar

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 19 February 2017

Sam Irvine is a low-profile boss in the high profile business of TV. Over the past decade at Freeview, he has overseen the digital transition of free-to-air TV. Mediawatch asks if it has delivered for viewers and what will come next.

Sam Irvine, the general manager at Freeview stepping fdown after 10 years in the job.

Sam Irvine, the general manager at Freeview stepping fdown after 10 years in the job. Photo: supplied

Ten years is a long time in television.

Back in 2007 most households had four or five free-to-air channels via analogue signals through a rooftop aerial to a chunky old TV set. If you wanted to pause a programme, you had to be watching one recorded earlier on a videotape or disc.

Sky customers were getting dozens of channels digitally via satellite, but paying a hefty bill each month.  

But by the end of 2013, the analogue transmissions had been switched off  - and the digital switchover of free-to-air TV was complete.

This was in the government’s interests too because millions of dollars were made by selling off the surplus spectrum. The government spent $25 million setting up Freeview to prompt New Zealanders to switch over themselves and speed up the process.

"Before Freeview we had five free-to-air channels, no HD, no electronic programme guide on screen. Things improved substantially," says Sam Irvine, Freeview's general manager since 2009 - who departs next month.

The confidential business plan presented to the major broadcasters in 2006 - seen by Mediawatch - had lofty goals for Freeview. 

One was "to unlock New Zealands stock of content and provide New Zealanders with seamless easy access to information important to their lives, businesses and cultural identity".

It identified four things "likely to evolve" :

  • local TV services, public or commercial
  • a mix of local and international programming
  • International pass through service eg CNN international, Discovery
  • public television services to meet special needs education; health; local government etc.

Photo: screenshot

Sam Irvine says Freeview now carries 37 services in total, more than Australia's Freeview. 

But Australia's public broadcaster, the ABC, and the commercial channels there have all have created several new digital channels there offering news, programmes for kids and young adults, movies and lifestyle shows.

By contrast, New Zealand's roster is bulked up with +1 delayed streams of existing channels, radio channels. There are three Freeview shopping channels, several Chinese language and religious ones. There's Parliament TV which is dormant most of the time when the House is not in session.

Canadian-owned Choice and TVNZ's Duke - a channel for young men - are the only channels with broad appeal on Freeview which didn't already exist in 2007 (if you don't count Mediaworks' Bravo, which replaced FOUR).

There are no channels dedicated to sports, films or New Zealand content, and only two international English language news channels: Al Jazeera and a Bloomberg business news channel. Several regional and local TV channels have vanished since 2007.

"The economics of the distribution of television has changed significantly, and even more so in the last 18 months. They would not have foreseen the rise of a service like Netflix," said of Sam Irvine, Freeview's general manager since 2009, told Mediawatch

Photo: supplied

The public investment in Freeview ten years ago covered some of the costs of going digital for the broadcasters. Shouldn't they have returned the favour by giving viewers new digital channels? 

"They invested on their own side in infrastructure and marketing. Many millions were spent on advertising to ensure switchover could happen,' says Sam Irvine.

"That investment was paid back by the digital dividend returned to the public by the auction of the spectrum".  

"MediaWorks recently entered into a joint venture with US channel NBC to create Bravo. That model is the one that will play out to enable a wider range of content including sports, movies and documentaries," says Sam Irvine.

"There's a fee to Freeview, a fee to the content provider and a transmission fee as well. With a smaller population those three things are difficult. This is an industry that requires more investment around public broadcasting,' says Sam Irvine. 

Locked in the vaults

A weakness in the system was exposed by TVNZ making New Zealand-only channels Heartland and Kidzone for pay TV operator Sky, not Freeview.

Sky CEO John Fellett was quoted as saying the 50 years of content in TVNZ's vault as the “biggest untapped resource since the Maui oil fields.” New Zealanders who had paid for the programmes to be made had to pay again to see them.

New Zealand on set up a publicly-funded online portal for NNZ content - New Zealand on Screen. Why is there no Freeview channel dedicated to New Zealand films and TV?

"That's a great question for NZ On Air. Why don't they launch a service on Freeview? Why aren''t they coming to see us - or another broadcaster about doing a joint venture to get that content up on the platform? New Zealanders want to see it," he says.