With DTT in the pipeline, great plans are afoot. Lara Kantor explains what we are in for from a government, broadcaster, production, advertising and television viewer perspective in a story first published in The Media magazine.
South African terrestrial television channels are poised to start broadcasting digitally in 2012. This is a game-changer for anyone in the business of television. And in a time of belt-tightening and rising prices, it’s also positive news for the consumer. Digital terrestrial television (DTT) will result in a better viewing experience for the tens of millions of South Africans reliant on the four main terrestrial free-to-air channels (e.tv and SABC 1, 2 and 3).
The planning for digital terrestrial television (DTT) has been in the works for a long time – the first DTT planning committee was convened a decade ago – and the process has been characterised by a series of unfortunate delays and missteps. But with the 2010 FIFA World Cup behind us, there seems to be a renewed vigour among different role players and a determination to see a strong South African DTT platform launched.
Counting in its favour is government’s adoption of the DVB-T2 transmission standard – the world’s best. This decision followed months of lobbying by foreign governments who unsuccessfully tried to persuade South Africa to adopt a competing standard. During this time, all implementation on the project ground to a halt, and the momentum lost will take some time to be fully recovered. But sense eventually prevailed and, after consideration of the different standards, in January this year government announced that it had made a decision to support the standard advocated by broadcasters and most technology companies in the sector. This choice makes South Africa a world leader – we will be one of the first to deploy DVB-T2 commercially.
Of course, the technical standard means little to viewers who are more interested in the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. The platform will have to prove itself to South Africans relying on more than just its fancy technology. Key to its attractiveness will be the content offering. DTT will see an increased number of channels being offered to free-to-air viewers. This means the average South African home will not have to look to the pay-television operators (DStv and Top TV) to view more channels. Once they have purchased a DTT set-top box (priced at approximately R500), they will be able to watch a variety of new channels at no further cost. They will also benefit from improved sound and picture, an electronic programme guide, radio services and interactive applications. For the millions of South Africans whose television experience is currently confined to the four terrestrial channels, DTT will bring many new features previously only available to pay-TV subscribers. In short, DTT brings multichannel television to everyone.
Broadcasters are understandably cagey about their channel plans. The first hint we will have of what channels will be put up on the new platform will be when those plans are submitted to industry regulator ICASA for approval later this year. It’s likely that the free-to-air broadcasters will offer a range of genre-based channels complementing their current full-entertainment offerings. While it is possible that high definition (HD) channels could also be offered, these may not be available at launch, but rather coming on-stream later.
Globally, the DTT success stories are impressive. In the UK, the DTT platform Freeview has a presence in 70% of all UK homes, and the availability of many more channels in that market has seen an increase in time spent viewing in UK homes. Viewers are not the only winners. DTT means more opportunities for other businesses in the television value chain – content producers, manufacturers, retailers, installers. The South African government has high hopes for the job creation prospects that will flow from DTT.
There is also good news for advertisers with the prospect of more niched channels and an ability to target consumers better. And while multichannel television naturally means a fragmentation of audiences, in DTT this fragmentation is less than that seen in the satellite environment. In South Africa, DTT will likely see a dozen channels on offer at launch, as opposed to the hundred or so available on satellite. So it will be easier for an advertiser to reach the mass audience on DTT than it is on satellite.
With all the winners in DTT, perhaps the only losers – at least in short to medium term – are the broadcasters, who must incur significant additional costs to set up and run the DTT platform while still paying for the analogue business. That double whammy makes the dual illumination period – the time during which analogue and digital platforms run side by side – a difficult and costly one for broadcasters. The goal is to make that period as short as possible. That means consumers need to be persuaded to adopt the digital platform quickly. This is an enormous challenge, given how many households are reliant on terrestrial television. So consumers beware! Prepare yourself to be flooded with marketing messages over the next year on the benefits of going digital. In this case, the promises are all true.