Monday, August 04, 2008

An All-Ireland Approach to Freeview TV

The Irish Times reports that 80% of households in the Republic will have freeview coverage by the end of 2009. The switch-over for the Republic is meant to take place in 2012. As well as RTE1, RTE2, TV3 and TG4 there will be four new channels to encourage people to convert to digital earlier - those channels are Dáil TV, Irish Film Channel, RTE3 (mostly archive material) and RTE1+1.

The SDLP are lobbying for all the southern broadcasters to join the free-to-view platform in the North. They believe "the government has a duty to extend the scope of availability of Irish broadcasting in Northern Ireland"(1) under the Good Friday Agreement and when the recent funding for the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund was renewed, the SDLP said that there is a "huge opportunity to boost the Irish language in the north of Ireland being missed"(2) because many Irish speakers in the North cannot receive these Irish language TV and radio channels.

Post-2012 when the analogue TV signal is turned off, there will still be some signal spill-over along the Border, but it won't be as much spill-over with digital as there is with the analogue signal. People along the Border living in the South are already taking advantage of Freeview TV broadcast from transmitters in the North, so they can continue to watch NI channels. However, people who don't live near the Border could be cut-off from the TV channels they watch every day. That's why it's so important that an all-Ireland agreement is reached so people throughout Ireland can watch the same TV channels - whether they are British or Irish.

Ofcom have also been discussing whether this is achievable and how this would affect commercial channels like UTV and TV3 who both share ITV network content, and both RTÉ and the BBC are in favour of some kind of agreement - but there would need to be an agreement on how the license fee for these channels in both jurisdiction will work in the future. This needs to be agreed now - but there isn't any visible progress from Minister Eamon Ryan and his DCENR colleagues. When the Minister says the new service will be "accessible to all", does he include northern viewers in that? As Tommy Gallagher MLA points out "There are whole areas of the north where RTE is in fact the primary television station of choice."

Also, and a point that the media is picking up on, since the Digital Terrestrial Television system for the Republic is being developed several years after the UK system, the Republic will start by broadcasting using MPEG4 (which can be used to broadcast High-Definition better quality TV). The UK broadcasts most channels using MPEG2 but there are plans to upgrade MPEG4 in the future. However, and this is the bit that will annoy people, most of the current digital TV receivers will be fitted with MPEG2 chipsets which won't be able to handle MPEG4 channels - so people will need to buy a new set top box. This will cost money, but if I knew RTÉ were broadcasting on Freeview in Belfast, I'd buy one tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I essentially stopped watching RTE when I switched to digital TV in NI a couple of years ago as it is not one of the offered channels.

Won't RTE suffer if all the BBC channels be available south of the border? Isn't there a danger to Irish TV of Irish viewers getting a lot of BBC choices? And lots of issues to do with who has the rights to broadcast the content and issues about operning up UTV's local advertising franchise to competition from TV3.

Pierre Brasfort said...

The majority of people in the south already have some BBC channels, which they will stop getting when analogue is turned off unless an agreement is reached for digital TV.

Once digital switch-over happens in the south, RTÉ will have to compete more for viewers anyway since other channels will be available free. It's the same as BBC have had to improve their programming since NTL/Sky/freeview have all offered so much more choice.

As for the broadcasting rights, RTÉ already broadcast on Sky in the north. They put up a black screen when they don't have the right to broadcast the programme outside ROI. They could do this on digital freeview too, except they have no real financial incentive (apart from additional viewers increasing advertising revenue).

As for TV3 and UTV, this is something more difficult to sort out and I don't have an answer. I think ITV would like to see their Irish franchise sold to one all-island channel and ITVs future decision might be what affects UTV/TV3 more. Still, they should work now to achieve an agreement since UTV already broadcasts to so many viewers in the south.

Anonymous said...

It would be good for RTE revenues if the BBC and UTV were not so freely available after chsngeover. Likewise, it would protect Irish TV production.


Anonymous said...

Much ado about nothing here.

While the UK uses MPEG2 and Eire is to use the newer MPEG4, there is no problem receiving them on the same box, if you chose carefully.

A Freeview box that has a CAM slot, as used for Setanta for example, can simply accept a MPEG4 CAM, which makes the Freeview box dual standard, fed from the existing aerial(s). Alternatively, two cheaper, single standard boxed could be used, fed from the existing aerial(s), or two individual aerials, if the their directions are very different.

No matter what the governments decide, RTE will alway broadcast from hilltop sites, into N Ireland, and boxes will be easily available. They could even restart there 'best of Irish TV' via free to view satellite.

Likewise, the UK channels will still be receivable, all the way to Cork, via satellite, for free, in the clear, as it already does.

The ALL CHANNELS EVERYWHERE idea, already exists, and will continue to exist.

Dave, Derry/Londonderry.

Pierre Brasfort said...

Dave - The point is that the majority of people in NI have already spent money on MPEG2 freeview boxes, so it does matter than the southern system will use a different standard. If there was better forward-planning there could be one system broadcasting all the channels. An all-Ireland license and broadcasting agreement would have huge advantages.