Ask LH: What Happened To The Free-To-Air HD Channels?

Dear Lifehacker, A few years ago most of the free-to-air TV channels had HD equivalents. Why, with the prevalence of large HD-capable TVs, don't these HD channels exist anymore? Thanks, Definition Diva

Dear DD,

The answer in a very basic sense comes down to money. When digital first launched there were a number of digital HD channels out there, using the spectrum that had been assigned to each network, although even then the pickings were relatively sparse if you wanted actual HD content.

The issue is that the networks instead flipped over to using the HD spectrum to launch additional channels such as GEM and 7Mate. Presumably the logic is that there's more money in the ads around old episodes of Hogan's Heroes than there are in sports, where viewers typically don't want to be interrupted. SBS HD remains the sole provider mirroring content, if its range of programming appeals to you. The additional digital channels are on HD spectrum, but that's not their selling point at the moment.

Sport is where it hits particularly hard. I can remember back when digital TV was only being trialled watching an experimental cricket broadcast where each channel was in fact a different camera, so you could mix your own cricket coverage as you saw fit. Sadly, we never got that, and the way that sports broadcasting rights are currently arranged it seems like we'll be stuck in an SD world for a while yet.

There is some light on the horizon, though, as when analogue broadcasts are formally terminated, the networks gain that spectrum to use, and could well use it to broadcast HD sport. There's also the possibility that new HD video options will emerge via the NBN, but that's some time away for many Australians. In the meantime, the Australian lesson seems to be this: if you want HD Sport, you can get it — but you'll have to pay for it.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I wonder what the spread is between houses with HD tuners and houses with SD tuners.

    I remember being at HN a few years ago, overhearing a salesman tell a woman that there was no point in her getting an HD set top box for her CRT TV, as it wouldn't show the HD channels unless she had an HDTV. If the spread of SD boxes is great enough for a dip in ratings, that may explain why the sports are on the SD channels.

    That and Sydney analogue is still running until the end of the year, so they won't show the sports on the multichannels if they can help it.

      Sport has to be on the main channel (ie the SD one) by law if it's on the Prescribed list (ie all sport that is going to make it onto FTA TV)

        Isn't "One", Channel Ten's sporting channel, their HD channel?
        The HD channels are (afaik)
        ABC: 24 (News)
        SBS: 30 (SBS 1 HD)
        Seven: 73 (7mate)
        Nine: 91 (Gem)
        Ten: 1 (One)

          Used to be, not any more. It got changed a while back, although some sporting content is still aired there.

            Oh, then which channel is their HD one now? I'm guessing 11?

            EDIT: I just realised you meant "used to be sport", not "used to be HD". Time to go grab another coffee and get my brain working again :P

            Last edited 25/01/13 3:34 pm

          When News Ltd (who own 50% of Fox Sports) became a major shareholder in Ten, Lachlan Murdoch decided to change One to a more general entertainment channel with some sport.

        I ignored the anti-siphoning list as I thought it had been updated to the two tier system. Turns out the two tier listing is not yet in effect (source:

          Anything on the anti-siphoning list should also be made to broadcast in HD!

        But what about the AFL in NSW/QLD/ACT and NRL in the other states? As far as I remember, they barely ever showed on the main channels so were relegated to 7mate (I live in NSW so don't know what Nine does about the NRL in other states)

    Is there any cost other than bandwidth, for transmitting HD video? I mean, I'd expect that all modern TV stations would record everything in HD and downscale it for broadcast but is that actually the case?

      From what I understand.. HD and SD broadcasts are the exact same bandwidth. HD is just SD transmitted twice or interlaced at an SD resolution but in a way that you don't notice it.. hence the difference between 1080i and 1080p.

        Wrong on all matters:
        1080i is still HD, not SD
        HD uses more bandwidth than SD
        and HD is not SD transmitted twice

        Each station is only licenced to use so much bandwidth. They can't broadcast HD and SD simulcast without converting one of their other channels to a simulcast channel.

      Whatever the reason, the bandwidth was too tight and resulted in shows which were pretty much unbearable due to digital artifacts.

      Obviously this shouldn't be the case since Nightly News and Local Sports tended to be OK, so the logical assumption I came to was that being a Melbourne viewer, everything was probably still squashed though a tight Syd-Melb link via Satellite (or Internet) rather than coming off a DVR in the local Melbourne studio.

    Isn't it just that there is still an analogue service and putting the big selling programming on to the HD channels will lose the analogue viewers?

    I've been ticked off about this for years.

    Australia should have done like the US did and just launched digital television, all boxes can receive all channels. Then there is no need for wasting space for SD/HD mirror channels, when only the HD channel needs to be broadcast.

    Hopefully Australia decides to overhaul this crap, scrap SD, hell scrap mpeg-2, go to a more modern codec like 264

      Hopefully Australia decides to overhaul this crap, scrap SD, hell scrap mpeg-2, go to a more modern codec like 264
      That would involve the exact same rigmarole Australia has had to go through to go from analogue to our current digital offering - it's been what, 8 years? 12? I lost track. And now you want to ask everyone to throw out their current set top boxes and make their TV's internal tuners unusable again so we can all upgrade to h.264? It won't happen on free-to-air mate, it just won't. And even if it did, by the time we do the actual final switch-over to h.264, it'll be old technology and you'll be here going "I hope Australia decides to overhaul this crap, scrap HD for 4k, hell scrap 264, and go to a more modern codec like SQUIBBADIB-989.37b"

      Last edited 25/01/13 2:48 pm

        Well that's why they needed boxes with updateable firmware or something.

        I have to assume at this stage they are thinking that with the NBN, eventually we'll just get all content through that.

      The US Government also paid for digital tuners for any citizen that couldn't afford it. Gillard announced a similar plan for here, and was hounded by everyone.

    There is some light on the horizon, though, as when analogue broadcasts are formally terminated, the networks gain that spectrum to use
    No they don't. The networks continue having their exact same amount of digital spectrum after analogue switchoff. The only difference is that the legislative limits on the number of multichannels and the requirement for 1040 hours of HD per year are removed, thus the only thing currently making them show anything in HD is gone.

    That answer is mostly bullshit. Here's the truth: the FTA channels all lobbied the government to do HD to get better content. However, this was really a bid to monopolise the airwaves -- there was only so much bandwidth, HD uses more bandwidth, having to mirror HD content uses even more bandwidth, so let's do that and no competitor can afford to enter the market!

    Needless to say, they succeeded. To make things worse, to stop the FTA channels from buying up sports and other content, there was some regulation which stated that the main (non-HD) channels needed to be the ones showing sport. This would stop a single channel from buying all the sports and showing them on all the channels.

    Except... this failed spectacularly! Nine famously bought both NRL and Rugby, and for matches that were on at the same time, they simply didn't show the Rugby. It was basically a move to block anyone else from being able to show it. The Australian people suffer. On top of that, the networks decided to turn the HD channels into secondary channels so that they made more money, but because more people have SD than HD, and probably some regulatory stuff, they use the SD channels to show their popular (hence probably available in HD) content, whereas the HD channels show old shows and crappy advertorials.

    Even when the analog transmissions are gone, this won't change the regulations nor the SD vs HD market. No way are the channels going to mirror their content. The only real hope is that HD receivers become so common and downsample to SD TVs that the channels switch over to their HD channels as their "primary" channels, and SD for advertorials.

    And by then everyone on this site will think 1080i is quaint.

      You made no sense, besides from the fact that all the HD channels are not taking advantage of being HD, instead choosing to blow up old 240p and 360p TV shows to 1080i with black bars on the side.

    The Pay TV networks have all had a big part in this also. By bribing the government so the regulation reads: "you must broadcast sport in SD" they are able to stitch up the market for HD sport for themselves, and convince the AFL/NRL that they are the way to go and not FTA.

    It all comes down to money alright. However users of the content are a bit smarter than that, and alongside scams of Foxtel involving setting up extra set top boxes under the 1 account at different addresses, there is also internet piracy, and sport content on mobile phones. A lot of people are going back to just listening to it on the radio as well, including using internet radio.

    This really needs to be overhauled completely, if the FTA networks are to survive this decade. Before that happens though, the current rights deals with the AFL/NRL have to expire (are they 3 years?) and the analogue spectrum has to shut down (Melbourne & "Remote Australia" (defined here: will be last, on 10 December 2013).

      I hope FTA survives a tad longer as I flatly refuse to pay for FTA cunningly disguised as subscription television. I'd possibly pay for a service done the way of ABC advertising, between shows, but when Pay TV mimics FTA in every way from advert breaks to old repeated shows, it drives me else where. Even FTA is driving me away from planned sit down scheduled watching due to their inability to provide reasonable content in a reasonable time frame, not to mention their abysmal picture quality with their current bandwidth choices.. Oh well the stations will still be living next to Fred and Willma Flintstone when the NBN arrives in all its glory. Hopefully someone takes the time to show these dinos how it the consumer wants it done right.

      The Pay TV networks and government incompetence really have screwed us.
      They bribed and/or conned the government (ACMA) that was either corrupt or asleep at the wheel.
      The result is that only the wealthy get to see sport in HD.
      By now, everyone should have access to free-to-air HD broadcasts in at least 1080i format.

        Who watches TV anymore anyway? They'll get the hint when ratings go down.

    Digital TV is all kinds of screwed up. Channels that just don't work in certain areas, like three different informercial channels, unreliable signals (moreso than analogue). It was squandered so badly.

    There is nothing stopping the FTA channels streaming their shows (and have catch-up) now - in HD. UK channels all do this now. It does not need the NBN to get a single HD stream to my house.

    The Internet has way more bandwidth than FTA spectrum ever can (or the bits that have been allocated to TV anyway) -

    I was going to chime in as a former ~8 year employee of Seven, but then I decided I'd rather not think back to the death threats I received from people when we phased out simulcasting Seven into HD.

    I was involved in the launch of 7TWo and 7mate. Not planned as well as some may think.

    Last edited 25/01/13 11:50 pm

    One big issue is the system for ratings changed. Channels used to dual broadcast sport on their main channel and their HD channel. At the time, ratings were combined for their multiple channels. That isn't the case now. If they broadcast it on say 7, and 7Mate, they're counted separately, therefore lower ratings, which affects advertising revenue. They stopped doing the dual broadcasts, the day the ratings system changed.

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