Freeview Australia has been heavily promoting itself, but will it really make a difference to your television viewing habits? And more importantly (for Loaded's purposes), will it save you a bucketload of money as the name implies?
Right now, the US is going into convulsions over its rollout of digital television, with a failed attempt to move the changeover from February to June. That's no surprise — having a single national switchover date was always going to be a major challenge in technical and audience awareness terms. Australia is more sensibly managing its switch to digital TV conversion in stages, and the final cutoff won't be until 2013 at the earliest, but there's still the need to make audiences aware that they'll need new equipment.
That was one of the key motivations behind the establishment of Freeview Australia, a consortium of pretty much all Australia's commercial and government-backed free-to-air television networks, in July last year. To date, Freeview's main activity has been an "awareness campaign" (ie, a bucketload of ads on TV) with the purpose of promoting a "Freeview box" — a digital TV set-top box that will offer a "suite of 15 channels" at no cost beyond the initial purchase of the box when it's released later in 2009.
This is a model taken pretty much wholesale from the UK, which is well into the process of transitioning to digital TV, having begun in 2007. Offering extra channels, rather than just boasting about improved picture quality, proved a vital driver in encouraging people to invest in a digital TV set-top box.
The other key motivation for setting up Freeview is that, as of this year, Australian commercial networks are allowed to run an additional standard-definition digital channel alongside their main station. Previously, they could only offer an additional HD channel. (There was no such prohibition on government-funded stations). The 15 channels will comprise 10 SD channels (a pair from each main broadcaster) and 5 HD channels. Of course, there's likely to be considerable overlap across these channels, with repeats, delayed broadcasts and older shows padding out the schedule.
And despite the enthusiastic ad campaign, the free-to-air commercial stations aren't exactly rushing to get those free extra digital channels on the air. As we reported earlier this month, despite a three-year planning windows, the first new channels won't appear until April. Ten intends to offer an all-sport channel, ONE, but other details are sketchy.
So will this help your budget? If you don't already have digital TV equipment, you're going to need to buy a new TV, a set-top box, or a pay TV subscription to get it. An additional raft of channels might make a Foxtel or Austar subscription look a bit less tempting, especially if there's a well-managed electronic program guide attached to it.
On the other hand, it will only meaningfully expand your choices if (as in the UK) the extra channels start producing their own unique content — and given Australia's audience size and the current advertising market, that seems a tad unlikely. Timeshift stations are useful, but not super-compelling.
For many Lifehacker readers, channel BitTorrent has already effectively taken over as the means of viewing TV. There are two problems there. One is that, of course, it's illegal. The other is that it can quickly chew through so much of your bandwidth that you end up on a much more expensive ISP plan. No matter what happens with the National Broadband Network, that situation's unlikely to change in the future — and the closest version of "free as in beer" TV is likely to remain controlled by a handful of commercial networks, SBS and the ABC (whose excellent iView service is at least now unmetered on several ISPs).
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.