18 TV channels and it's all free

By Claire Trevett

New Zealand's move to digital television could give viewers the choice of up to 18 free-to-air channels.

The change is good news for people in areas with bad reception, where the only option so far has been to subscribe to Sky and receive a free-to-air package - for a monthly fee of $18.29 and installation costs of $99.

The digital system also means more channels. The satellite deal offers up to 18 different channels, and TVNZ and CanWest, which owns TV3 and C4, have taken up six of the channels each - giving them four extra on top of their two existing channels.

Prime could also sign up and some regional stations - such as Alt TV - are looking at buying in.

The head of the broadcasting school at Christchurch Polytechnic, Paul Norris, said it could also mean a boost for local content. TV One and TV2 could be left to run as they were, while the other channels were less commercial.

"One of the big questions is whether the Government is going to assist in funding for these new channels, especially if they are commercial-free. There was silence from the minister on that today," Mr Norris said.

Minister of Broadcasting Steve Maharey said decisions were still to be made on whether the Government would front up with further public funding for local content on the new channels.

TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis said he hoped to announce new channels by the end of the year and have something ready to run from the time the satellite transmission started.

However, he warned any financial results could be some way off.

"Building commercial capacity around those services will be a lengthy process and initially they will not be commercial, but that will build over time."

In the past, TVNZ has viewed new channels as a place to screen programmes targeted at minority groups, or for pure public broadcasting content which would run non-commercially.

In a memo to the TVNZ board last October, just before his resignation as chief executive, Ian Fraser discussed at least two new non-commercial channels, including a news and documentary channel and a daytime children's channel, which would screen life-style programmes or drama and arts in the evenings.

Mr Ellis would not discuss the kind of channels TVNZ was looking at, beyond saying many ideas had been considered and now intensive research would be done to figure out which ideas would work.

Brent Impey, CanWest's chief operating officer who was fronting for the Freeview grouping, said CanWest's plans were secret.

"We won't be launching new services unless we can see we will get some return from them. But we are not prepared to disclose our plans."

Commentators wonder whether the cost of the initial set-up will put people off joining up.

Unitec senior media lecturer Peter Thompson said people could need a sweetener to part with up to $400 to sign on to digital, especially if they could see no discernible difference in the offerings of digital compared with analogue.

He said Sky had always offered incentives for people to subscribe by subsidising the cost of the decoders and installation.

If people were slow to take up Freeview, it might have to consider doing the same.

What is Freeview?

A deal between TVNZ, Canwest's TVWorks (TV3 and C4), Maori TV, the NZ Racing Board and Radio NZ to go digital. Prime is widely expected to join up too, and some regional broadcasters.

When will it start?

The first satellite transmission is expected by early next year.

What do you need?

Anyone with a Sky dish on their house will need a separate decoder top box but not a separate dish.Those without a Sky dish will need the top box, plus a dish or UHF aerial to pick up the signal.

How much will it cost?

Once the top boxes are introduced, they will cost about $200 initially and will be available from electronics stores. It costs about $145 to buy and install a satellite dish or a UHF aerial. The costs could go down if Freeview introduces incentives to encourage more people to join up to digital.

What happens if I don't do it?

Nothing. The normal television analogue system will stay up and running for many years.

So why would I bother to change over?

Digital television provides better reception and picture, and eventually more channels.

Does this mean Sky won't show the free-to-air channels any more?

Sky has yet to decide whether it will continue this service or whether it will screen any additional channels that the broadcasters set up on Freeview.

Will my old television still work?

Yes. Any colour television should be able to pick up digital television with a decoder. Digital TVs - which have the decoder built into them - are coming on the market but are still at very high prices.

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