While urban TV viewers get increasingly overwhelmed with a range of digital TV choices, many regional Australians have survived with just the ABC plus (at most) a pair of commercial stations. That's now set to change, but will it necessarily be an improvement?
Earlier this week, the Federal Government announced funding to ensure that remote regional areas — many of which currently only get ABC, SBS and at most a pair of digital channels — will be able to access the full range of national free-to-air digital channels. The government will provide $34 million to upgrade digital transmission facilities in remote South Australia, Western Australia and (this covers about half the total bill, with broadcasters footing the rest). The government will fund extremely remote viewers via the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) scheme. The HD channels offered by ABC and SBS will also be made available on both satellite and digital networks.
As TV blog TV Tonight points out, the transition to multi-channel digital won't be able to come soon enough for some viewers. For instance, Neighbours enthusiasts in regional areas (stop laughing, they exist) have been facing the prospect of that show disappearing from their screens when the long-running soap moves onto Eleven next year. Exact timing for the rollout of the new channels hasn't yet been announced, but it would obviously be in Ten's interest to get that to happen as soon as possible.
As city viewers have already learnt, however, getting extra digital channels doesn't necessarily mean that you feel like there's a better range of options to watch. The new channels often seem to consist largely of repeats of sitcoms (exemplified by an infamous recent Saturday where The Nanny was showing simultaneously on both of Nine's supplementary channels, Go and GEM). And channels have had to get special permission to shift sports broadcasts from their main channels to their digital networks, even though that's the most obvious solution for dealing with over-running events. National digital availability should make that less of an issue.
The other open question is whether digital transmission will work as well in those areas. Problems with reception on digital networks are far from uncommon even in highly populated urban areas; whether those services can work as well in remote areas will likely play a major role in whether the scheme is perceived as a success. (VAST is designed to handle some of these cases, but I suspect there'll be a few narky "edge cases".)
Where I grew up in rural NSW, we only had two channels until the late 1980s, when aggregation resulted in additional channels appearing on analogue UHF signals. Up until that point, there was no way anyone in my area could watch Neighbours. But I didn't always feel like we were missing out: our local channel purchased the most successful shows from each network, so it seemed rarer to conclude there was nothing on. Once aggregation happened, I had to spend more time checking the TV guide, and often found all the shows I liked clashed while other nights were a wasteland. Truly remote Australians are about to see a similar change.
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