New Zealanders embrace 'free' digital TV

Uptake of Freeview - the free-to-air digital television and radio service - has been faster than expected, with installed receivers in over 100,000 Kiwi homes.

The latest figures show that over 25,000 receivers have been sold this quarter, swelling the total to 123,903, including 7594 high-definition versions.

The current arrangement from Government on digital television dictates that the analogue broadcast will be shut off when coverage reaches 70 per cent, or 2012, whichever comes first.

Freeview boss Steve Browning says that between the freebie service and Sky digital broadcasts, coverage is now sitting at around 50 per cent.

"We didn't think it would be quite this fast," he admits.

Users of standard analogue televisions will need to buy an add-on box to receive digital broadcast when the switchover is eventually made.

Freeview receivers currently come in two flavours - HD and standard definition - but this will change later this year or early next with the arrival of a PVR model which will allow users to record one Freeview channel and watch another.

It will run a system with features like American TiVo, which suggests similar content for viewers and features series link technology similar to that employed by Sky's new HDi decoders.

This will record every episode of a show without having to manually enter recording details.

It also features a impressive work around for timing clashes between shows.

Browning explained that - using Shortland Street as an example, if the receiver has a programming clash for a weeknight episode, it will look forward and choose between rescreenings on other digital channels, or pick the episode out of the weekend 'Omnibus'.

Browning can not yet release full details about the machine, but says working spec includes at least two tuners and a large hard disk drive.

Sony has today released Bravia LCD televisions with built-in Freeview HD tuners which use the same interface as other Freeview devices already in the marketplace. Using the localised GUI is a first for the Japanese electronics giant.

Browning says the Freeview service has resonated with New Zealanders, and that he has been impressed by the speed of its uptake.

"We are all acutely aware that the cost of living has gone up dramatically this year," he says. "This makes Freeview's offer of digital quality TV and radio for a one-off cost and no ongoing payments very appealing,".

He says there have been a few teething problems with the new service, and while nothing remotely as embarrassing as Prime's porn blunder, a kids' show was broadcast without sound - raising an immediate reaction from peace-starved Mums throughout the country.

The adoption of Freeview into New Zealand homes is likely to increase further during the Olympics, with high-def coverage of events as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. There will also be an exclusive channel giving extended coverage - including smaller sports unlikely to enjoy mainstream coverage - called TVNZ Sport Extra on Freeview 20.

- NZ HERALD STAFF

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