TV is about to get complicated

Internet TV may just make the upcoming explosion of digital TV in SA nothing more than a pop

TV is about to change. Not only will there be an explosion of channels, those channels will be spread across a number of new platforms, bringing a mix of free and paid-for digital broadcasting to South African households.

Somewhat further down the line, all of these new innovations can find themselves obsolete when internet-based TV comes of age.

Today, the standard TV household in South Africa has access to the three SABC channels and with their analogue TV set.

But a few years from now, South Africa would have gone digital, which means this household has to have a set-top box or decoder. Or two, or three.

They may need a satellite dish or two as well.

The long-delayed digital terrestrial television (DTT) setup will require set-top boxes plugged into analogue TV sets to convert the digital signal – giving viewers access to additional channels on this platform.

State signal distributor Sentech said the DTT platform will be open to all the broadcasters, most of whom will also be using other digital platforms.

This set-top box will cost somewhere between R400 and R700, and government is planning to subsidise the poorest 5 million of South Africa’s 11 million TV households.

The SABC, which has already launched its 24-hour news channel on the DStv bouquet, will make it available on digital terrestrial along with some other planned channels from the public broadcaster.

M-Net and will also be launching some new channels on the digital terrestrial platform.

Most of these new channels will be free and used as an incentive to get people to buy the DTT set-top box.

But there is also the potential for broadcasters to offer pay-TV channels on the digital terrestrial platform and this is where the debate around conditional access comes in.

Conditional access is a software application in the box that allows broadcasters to regulate access to certain channels.

Without conditional access, broadcasters cannot block or unblock access to certain channels, which would make the offering of pay channels on the digital terrestrial bouquet impossible. Then there are the satellite platforms.

As things stand, South Africans who want more choice beyond the free channels have to subscribe to MultiChoice’s DStv bouquet or On Digital Media’s struggling TopTV. sister company Platco Digital and Sentech both plan to launch free-to-air satellite platforms named Openview HD and Freevision, respectively, this month. said this week that it is developing a movie channel featuring local and international fare, an African news channel featuring news from its eNCA operation, a channel dedicated to African movies and dramas, and a 24-hour children’s channel as an extension of their Craz-e brand.

Platco Digital is in discussions with the SABC to carry some of the public broadcaster’s channels on Openview HD as well.

Freevision will also be carrying the public broadcaster’s channels, including the 24-hour news channel.

The two free satellite services will cost consumers R1 800 for the decoder, satellite dish and installation with access to 12 to 20 channels at no additional cost.

Sentech CEO Setumo Mohapi says Freevision is a necessary strategic development in broadcasting.

It would make multichannel broadcasting signal distribution tariffs affordable, thus encouraging the entry of small, medium and micro enterprise single-channel broadcasters into the mainstream TV broadcasting sector.

Despite all these developments, the eventual rise of internet TV looms large as the real ­game-changer.

South African broadcasters are already casting their eyes on this new challenge.

“Online players are going to be the real competition. The next wave will be online players which will offer an abundance of content, choices and platforms to suit every consumer’s lifestyle and price range,” said one industry insider who did not want to be named.

In the UK, the equivalent of digital terrestrial called Freeview launched in 2002.

It offers more than 60 TV channels, 26 radio stations and 4 HD channels.

A decade later, in 2012, the free internet-based rival to digital terrestrial, YouView, was launched.

YouView said it had applications from 130 internet-based TV channels to get on the platform and these will be added within a year.

With South Africa’s late adoption of digital terrestrial, the platform may have less time before it gets similarly eclipsed.

This is ultimately is what every TV consumer wants to hear as they sit in their favourite armchair, clutching a remote . . . make that remotes.

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