The Year That Was… #5: The dawn of HD

New Year’s Day 2007 marked a change to Australia’s digital television landscape. From that day on, commercial stations were permitted to open a dedicated high-definition (HD) channel with content separate to the analogue or standard-definition channels (or the core channels as ACMA identifies them)

Didn’t hear about it? You weren’t alone. We all thought the networks continued through the year as if it was still 2006 as not a word was uttered about this partial lifting of multi-channel restriction on commercial stations. (ABC and SBS have been allowed to offer multi-channelling since digital TV started in 2001)

Then, on 14 September, out of the blue comes an announcement from Network Ten that after months of planning, they are going to launch their ‘break-out’ high-definition channel TenHD in December.

The new channel would offer around 50 hours per week of exclusive content not available on the core channels. Programming would include time-shifted content such as delayed broadcasts of Ten News, and would also include movies, sci-fi, documentaries and extensions of existing Ten programs such as Australian Idol.

The announcement from Ten seemed to spark some interest among its rivals, as only a day after their announcement the Seven Network said they will also be launching a separate high-definition channel, also to launch in December. However while Ten was able to spell out its program strategy and station identification for TenHD, Seven was only able to offer a vague statement as to its HD offering. There was no channel identification and no indication of programming. It looked as if Seven had been caught on the hop by Ten, and perhaps tried to ‘spoil’ Ten’s announcement with a rushed press release to state its intentions.

Then the Nine Network got involved with parent company PBL Media boss Ian Law making a statement to the press that Nine will be beating both Seven and Ten with their own HD channel to launch in November. No suggestion of programming other than a vague statement that it will be a mix of high-definition and standard-definition (something which defies the rules set out by ACMA), and nothing else to give away – not even a name of the channel (though 9HD seems a safe bet).

Also an interesting announcement by Mr Law given that Nine is regarded as being disadvantaged in the HD arena by not having the infrastructure in place to support it, as opposed to the more modern facilities operated by Seven and Ten. While Nine’s previous owner, the late Kerry Packer was happy to spend millions on hiring celebrities and buying content for his network, he was not known to show the same generosity in some of his stations’ infrastructure. One Nine staffer was quoted as describing some of Nine’s equipment as being archaic and that it is a pure miracle that Nine gets some of its stories to air in time. How Nine was going to get a functional HD channel on the air by November would certainly have been interesting – but Law was quoted in the same press article that Nine had been planning their HD channel in ‘top secret’.

Can you see a trend happening here?

Once all that initial chest-beating was out of the way, there wasn’t much else made public about these much-flaunted HD channels although Ten had started airing some well-made station promos to get the message out about TenHD – another sign that Ten was certainly more progressed than Nine and Seven appeared to be.

But then a month later, viewers of Seven’s high-definition channel noticed a different program being broadcast as opposed to their core channels. What was this about? Is this their new channel? As it turned out, yes, it was 7HD – but don’t worry about any pre-launch announcement or promotion, just put out a press release the next day to make the statement that Seven was now the first to launch their HD channel. But once they cut through the spin, viewers realised not to get too excited as 7HD was only offering two hours of late-night programming a night for the time being and still no firm indication as to the channel’s intentions. A case of rushing to air just so they could claim to be ‘first’? Perhaps.

But it’s not always a matter of who is first to launch – but rather who is best to launch, and it still appeared that Ten was going to lead even though still only snippets of information was being released to the public, but Ten was not going to be stirred up by Seven’s catch-up attempts and big statements.

Then November came and went – and there was no sign of Nine’s ‘top secret’ HD channel until new CEO David Gyngell told the press that Nine’s new HD channel would now not launch until March 2008, and would not be treated as a separate channel – as Seven and Ten were promoting theirs – but rather just an enhancement of their mainstream channel, although all three networks had been doing that anyway in providing an HD simulcast of many standard-definition programs – so Nine’s intentions were still not totally clear but at least being upfront enough to they are not going to fall for the ego trip that Seven seems to have taken.

When Ten announced that TenHD would launch on Sunday 16 December, you’d never guess what happened next – Seven decided to beat them to it by launching their full-scale 7HD channel a week earlier, prompting another proud press release. Seven was first yet again, but take a glance at 7HD’s ‘full’ line-up and a lot of its content appeared to be re-runs of programs from their archives, and not all of it was even produced in HD, another sign that the channel was rushed together just to beat any launch date that Ten had offered in advance.

TenHD did finally launch, as announced, on 16 December with some interesting programming initiatives such as a dedicated sci-fi night, and some time-shifted content as promised although this is so far limited to only a 30-minute ‘shift’ for the 5.00pm news, and the US daytime soap The Bold And The Beautiful. More sport is expected in the new year and when ratings return in February one hopes that there will be more of their promised 50 hours a week of exclusive content, and more time-shifted content.

Despite 7HD’s initial schedule perhaps being underwhelming, there is some potential for innovation with Seven planning some original content for 7HD such as new talk shows from Deal Or No Deal host Andrew O’Keefe, and from the producer of Sunrise, Adam Boland. The promise of original content specifically for HD shows that perhaps underneath all the bravado, there is a genuine opportunity for HD to experiment a little with formats that would perhaps never see the light of day on mainstream television which in turn may see some innovation filter through to the mainstream channels – and it is one aspect that Ten has possibly ignored with TenHD.

Thanks for MoeVideos, identsdotTV and galoresoftware for the YouTube clips.

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