The digital TV re-tune 7th Feb – and: It’s nice to know genuine technological reform can happen

This Friday 7th February is Melbourne’s re-tune day for digital television. This is when the frequencies of some channels change, so they can make more efficient use of the spectrum.

If you don’t re-tune your digital TV devices, you may find some channels don’t work after this. Hopefully most people will figure out how to do it.

On the television

The whole shift to digital TV, and the shutdown of analogue services, has been interesting to watch. Once the benefit of the extra channels were there, it seemed like there was a stampede of people switching.

It’d be interesting to know what the next planned stages are. Will we move towards all HD channels? It’d certainly be nice to make use of the available technology to get that higher quality.

Digital TV is one of those changes that governments implement from time to time to help the country move forward, and it’s nice to know that — despite some rightly highlighting issues with it — it’s gone ahead relatively smoothly, and without the kind of luddite response to change that you see in some other parts of the world.

Other similar changes that spring to mind from recent decades:

The USA’s near-paralysis on some of these types of issues is an interesting contrast. They’re one of a handful of countries steadfastly resisting metric despite the economic benefits, they still have 1 cent coins and $1 notes despite inflation, their telephone numbering system is a complete mess with more and more cities now having multiple area codes

But they have managed to largely migrate from analogue to digital television — and might even have more free-to-air HD channels generally available than we do.

And of course, the USA leads the world in other ways, particularly around innovation, so I don’t know if these things are necessarily holding them back, but you’d have to wonder how much better they’d do if their government was able to push ahead with basic technological reform.

Bye bye to analogue TV

Analogue TV has been shut off in most parts of Australia in the last few months.

Sydney was yesterday morning, and one enterprising bloke managed to record the last moments of all five stations. Have a watch, it’s great. Note Channel 7 (top right) which actually marked it by playing an old animation. The others just went blank as if in some horror movie:

Channel 7 also made an effort when their Brisbane analogue signal ended back in May:

Melbourne makes the final switch-off next Tuesday at 9am.

I assume most people have switched already, and thankfully the household assistance package has meant people shouldn’t get left behind.

The extra channels should have been motivation enough for most of us. And the government’s motivation? Lots of revenue from selling off the old analogue spectrum.

The big question will be when we start to get more high definition (HD) channels. Will there be another switch date in the future when standard definition equipment is no longer supported? How many SD-only setups are out there, who can’t get ABC News 24, 7Mate, and GEM?

Oh and by the way, if you’re culling the duplicate channels in your tuner, you might like to know that SBS HD and SBS1 are not actually identical. SBS HD usually shows SBS1, but sometimes shows SBS2 for movies and sport and other programming that benefits from HD.

Only one thing puzzles me about the big digital switchover — why does officialdom call the old system “analog”, US spelling without the ue?

Update 10/12/2013:

Melbourne shut down, all channels:

Channel 7, which marked the occasion with archival footage:

Digital TV can sometimes look like crap

Where digital TV really fails is handling lots and lots of moving objects on screen at once.

Look at these two grabs from last night’s ABC news. In the first, host Ian Henderson is shown. With little moving, the picture is very smooth — even with the slightly dodgy ABC blue screen.

Digital TV grab 1/2
(See it bigger)

Now look at the second grab a few seconds later. It’s library footage of Melbourne Storm’s premiership win a few years ago. Tickertape stuff is going everywhere, it’s probably been grabbed in turn off a Channel 9 transmission and reprocessed, and the picture looks like crap.

Digital TV grab 2/2
(See it bigger)

Admittedly it doesn’t look quite so bad when viewing the footage, as so much is moving around that the eye doesn’t really notice the artefacts as much. But this is once instance where I suspect analogue would actually look much better.

Some further thoughts on Digital TV

High Definition-only channels

ABC News 24 was the first HD-only channel.

There’s more on the way: Channel 7’s offering aimed at the male demographic “7-Mate” will also be HD-only.

Channel 10’s new “Eleven” will be SD, but it will replace the SD version of their sports channel “One”.

There are rumours Channel 9 will launch a new channel next year, and inevitably that’ll be HD-only, given they have to continue to broadcast their main channel in SD.

Time, perhaps, for those of you with no HD tuner to look into upgrading.

How many channels?

Once the commercial networks launch their third channels, by my calculations we’ll almost be at capacity, with 15, though it’s unclear to me if SBS has the right to put up any more channels.

Certainly things have grown since just a few years ago when there were 6 (analogue) channels: ABC, 7, 9, 10, SBS and Channel 31.

Melbourne TV channels
Note the graph is not linear. Based on some stuff from Wikipedia, counting distinct programming, and main channels only, not things like channels displaying TV guides, which were used at one time last decade. I may have missed a few minor and temporary ones, like that 3D test channel that ran for a while this year. That bump in 2001-03 was the ABC’s initial extra channels FlyTV and ABC Kids, both of which got canned.

Ian, an Englishman used to the old UK channel numbering of BBC1, BBC2, ITV (implied “3”), Channel 4, Channel 5 etc, once remarked to me that when they first discovered Australia had a “Channel 10”, they wondered if we also had channels 1 to 9. We didn’t of course, but now we do, though they’re not all numbered like that. (In the mean time of course, the UK has also expanded its channel range via digital… and interestingly, the BBC’s “CBeebies” and “CBBC” are similar to the ABC2 and ABC3 daytime children target demographics.

How many people are watching what?

Here’s some figures from OzTam, Melbourne between 6am and midnight, for all homes and including cable TV share:

  • Seven   20.00%
  • Nine   18.20%
  • Ten   15.80%
  • ABC1   10.50%
  • GO!   3.90%
  • ABC2   3.40%
  • 7TWO   3.10%
  • SBS1   2.80%
  • ABC3   1.30%
  • One   1.20%
  • ABC News 24   0.80%
  • SBS2   0.50%
  • All cable channels   18.50%

ABC News 24

Despite glitches like those that affected Sunday night’s repeat of Insiders (where it started late, accidently switched to Inside Business for a mistaken minute or two, then flicked back but was cut short just as Barrie Cassidy made an interesting point), I’m very much enjoying ABC News 24.

This interesting piece highlights something that hadn’t occurred to me: because it covers major press conferences live and unedited, it’s proving a boon for niche journalists, such as the tech press, who are covering the debate over broadband, as they can’t afford to physically be at these press conferences, but can listen in via the TV coverage. And of course their readers, who can also watch the coverage for themselves.

Going digital

I finally got myself organised for digital TV, including Thursday night’s launch of ABC News 24.

(The opening minutes of ABC News 24, posted by Adam Dimech)

I’d been putting off buying a set-top box, remembering the rule that technology always gets cheaper over time. I was waiting for an HD set-top box with USB recording to get under $100. Kogan has come close: its PVR is $95 including delivery. But it hasn’t had outstanding reviews.

An HD tuner was critical because ABC News 24 is the first channel to be exclusively available in HD. The ABC’s FAQ mentions why:

The ABC only has a specific amount of digital spectrum in which to broadcast all its services. To launch ABC News 24, we need the spectrum currently being used to broadcast our ABC1 HD channel. By law the ABC also must provide its main channel, ABC1, in standard definition.

So while I was looking around for a suitable box, Zazz, the mob who sell one thing every day, came up with their offering, at $78 (including delivery), the DVBT3858 from some unknown brand called Proton. I couldn’t find any reviews online, but one thing I do like about the Zazz guys (apart from their funny sales-pitches) is that they are fairly forthright with their comments on what they’re selling. Discussion in their forum led me to the conclusion that it was worth a punt — for instance, they noted that the pause live TV function is “somewhat limited” and “a wee bit quirky”, but they reckoned the channel change response time was good, and the recorded files can be transferred over to a computer (thanks in part to a lack of Freeview certification).

Since it’s arrived, I’ve been very happy with it. Installing was straightforward, and the only change to the configuration I had to make was to switch it from NTSC to PAL. (My TV works with NTSC, but PAL is understandably less fuzzy.)

Apart from the manual being next-to-useless (but the menus are pretty easy to understand), and one attempt to record MythBusters that didn’t seem to work (haven’t looked to see why yet), it’s been smooth sailing, happily browsing the digital channels, and I’ve got it and the media PC collaboratively recording the news each night in case I’m not home. It also plays files from elsewhere, so is also effectively replacing the media player box I also got off Zazz, though it seems to lose sync on some of the files I’ve tried.

I’m pretty happy with this purchase, and it’ll keep us going if we still have the old analogue TV after the analogue shutoff reaches Melbourne in December 2013.

Zazz, of course, don’t have it on sale now, but may do so again in the future, and of course it may pop up elsewhere.

And yes, I’ve been enjoying the extra channels, including ABC2’s just-started repeats of The Goodies. And ABC News 24, of course.

  • Dec 2010: Update on the Proton digital STB — there are a few niggles with it that I’ve found over the months. It doesn’t appear to properly handle summer time; you have to set the time manually. Occasionally there’s a few seconds of lag between sound and vision when switching channels (esp to an HD channel).
  • Another issue I’ve found (probably not a STB problem per se) is that the .ts files it produces are difficult to convert into other formats. They all seem to play on Windows 7 Media Player, but conversion programs I’ve tried sometimes have issues. In the worst case scenario, I’ve resorted to playing the file in Media Player and capturing a new video file of it in CamStudio. With the right settings, the quality from this is surprisingly good.