A report in the Australian last year confirmed that High Definition (HD) broadcasting of Australian sport on free-to-air television looks dead and buried. For those who did not notice Saturday coverage of AFL matches by the Network Ten only featured on the network’s primary channel towards the end of last season, whilst viewers were able to watch “alternative” programming on ONE, such as the Moto GP from Assen. Whilst this is not a bad thing as the idea of Freeview is to provide genuine viewing alternatives, it does raise the question of where does HD coverage of sport sit in Australia’s broadcasting environment, especially since the uptake of digital television?
Freeview is now well established and 93% of households have digital television with around 90% of households across the 5-city metro market having access to HD channels. The result is that viewership of the digital channels continues to grow. For example on a Saturday night last year GO! recorded a 10.1% all-people share which outrated Ten’s all-people primary channel share in Sydney and Brisbane for that evening. GO! that evening played the smash-hit movie Transformers with 471,000 viewers tuning in, which saw it make it into the Top 100 of programs across all programs for that week.
Whilst the digital platform succeeds in attracting new viewers and advertising dollars, the much trumpeted coverage of HD sport has all but become non-existence. In Australia there are currently five HD FTA channels, namely SBS HD, ABC News 24, 7MATE and GEM and ONE.
ONE up to last year’s rebrand had promoted itself as the home of HD sport, including its coverage of AFL matches, major golf events and a host of other sports. Whilst sports on the station such as F1 are still in HD the prominent marketing that coverage is in HD is all but gone. Whilst it is easy for a network to take a host broadcaster feed say for the F1 or the Olympics in HD and play that on their digital HD stations, local sports in HD on FTA is dwindling by the day.
Network Ten‘s decision not to broadcast the AFL in HD (Ten no longer have AFL broadcast rights following a new deal between the AFL, Seven, Foxtel, Austar and Telstra) is just one of the many examples of Australian networks failing to utilise the best available image capture technology for sports broadcasting. Over the past 12 months there has been a scaling back of HD coverage of sport on FTA. Examples that come to mind is the promise from Nine that the 2010/2011 Ashes would be in HD on GEM, but in the end could only be seen in Standard Definition (SD) on Nine. This pattern continued this season with cricket only on Nine, apart from news overrun on GEM, meaning FOX SPORTS’ replays were the only place to see HD coverage of Australia’s domination of India.
For the tennis on Seven, whilst we are enjoying the continuous LIVE coverage across Seven and 7TWO, HD coverage of the event is only available to Australian viewers on FOX SPORTS, even though Seven as Host Broadcaster is filming the event in HD. This shows that on most ocassions the networks are shooting the vision in HD and then downscaling it for terristrial broadcast, whilst international broadcasters who are taking the feeds e.g. ESPN HD for their Australian Open coverage broadcast it in HD to overseas territories. The only network that seems proud to broadcast sport in HD these days is government broadcaster SBS, who trumpeted its 2011 Tour de France coverage would be in HD.
The argument comes down to CONTENT v QUALITY. Is a viewer more concerned about the content or the quality of the broadcast? It would appear that content currently wins the battle as an SD picture of a close 5-set match between Nadal v Federer is better than no coverage of the match at all. However sport in HD is a much better proposition than SD coverage and in this author’s more HD sport should be on FTA TV. The pictures from last year’s Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 and Armor All Gold Coast 600, which were broadcast in HD on 7MATE were fantastic. An HD picture is far superior. There is no comparison when watching an Australian Open match on FOX SPORTS compared to Seven/7TWO in terms of picture quality, especially when the viewer becomes used to the clearness and sharpness of picture that HD provides. This is even more so as consumers purchase larger screen TVs and the pixels on an SD picture become more stretched to fill the larger flat-screen TVs.
All one can say is thank god for FOX SPORTS. Australia’s Sports Leader is now in the position of being the premier provider of HD broadcasts for Australian and international sports coverage. Even when the originating broadcast is not in HD, Fox Sports upscales the coverage to bring the picture quality as close to true HD as possible. The failure of the FTA networks to embrace HD sports coverage has allowed FOXTEL to market its HD platform and in particular its FOX SPORTS offering as the place for HD broadcasts, at a time when FTA networks should be trumpeting the availability of FTA sports on Freeview against having to pay for sports content on FOX SPORTS.
Whilst most will continue to say the content availability is more valuable than broadcast quality, as more people become exposed to HD content, it is likely their tolerance for SD broadcasting will diminish, especially for coverage of sports.
The AFL from this year will be simulcast on FOX FOOTY/FOX SPORTS, even when Seven is the host broadcaster. The new FOX FOOTY (produced by FOX SPORTS) is trumpeting that it will broadcast matches in HD. Will the viewer if the option is available choose FOX FOOTY over Seven’s own broadcast for improved picture quality? At the announcement of the new broadcast rights Seven West chief Executive David Leckie said that he did not know whether Seven would broadcast in the superior HD format for 2012 and beyond.
If the FTA networks are not prepared to broadcast all sport in HD they should at least provide the viewer with major sporting events such as the Australian Open, Melbourne Cup, State of Origin, Australian Cricket Matches etc. in HD on a secondary HD digital channel. Viewers will search out HD content if it is available. ONE HD discovered this when it simulcast AFL and F1 races on both Ten and ONE HD. If the FTA networks fail to broadcast HD sport content moving forward, especially the AFL & NRL Grand Finals and State of Origin, the strength of FOX SPORTS will continue to grow, especially if more sports are simulcast on the FTA and the subscription platform such as Wallabies matches and Australian Masters Golf. Ratings for FOX SPORTS’ coverage of the Wallabies’ Test Matches and Rugby World Cup last year should be testament to this. For example the New Zealand v Australia World Cup semi-final was broadcast LIVE by Nine and FOX SPORTS. Nine had 1.78 million viewers in metro markets, but FOX SPORTS still had 719,000 viewers tune in, that is a lot of viewers that were not exposed to Channel Nine’s advertising partners.
HD Sports Broadcasting is the future and provides a new level of enjoyment for watching sport on TV. At this year’s Olympics in London the BBC is to debut a new broadcasting technology, Super Hi Vision, that delivers picture quality 16 times better than HDTV. The BBC will reportedly erect custom-built 50ft-high screens at three locations around the UK to allow the public to catch a glimpse of the future of television. This technology is not expected to be available to consumers until 2022 but demonstrates that sport is ideal to demonstrate new broadcasting technology, but such will only take hold amongst consumers if broadcast networks utilise this technology.
The analogue switch-off is occurring and hopefully this will provide impetus for FTA networks to deliver more HD sport to viewers across Australia.