Kiwi nets gear up for digital bow

B'casters can plan for the end of analog TV signals

Kiwi webs Television New Zealand and CanWest MediaWorks are picking up the lion’s share of the $48 million for an 18-channel digital terrestrial platform, based on the U.K.’s successful Freeview, that will launch at the end of the year.

Thursday’s announcement comes as a big relief to broadcasters, who can plan for the end of the analog TV signal, which will come in the next six to 10 years, according to Broadcasting Minister Steve Maharey.

Digital had been on hold since the government rejected a costly plan last year.

Freeview will be a hybrid of digital terrestrial television and satellite, overseen by government-owned transmission company Transmission Holdings (THL). As in the U.K., customers will not fork over subscription fees but pay a one-off $126 for a set-top box.

TVNZ and CanWest MediaWorks New Zealand will each have six channels, with another six allocated by a nonprofit Freeview group yet to be appointed.

Government-owned Maori Television and Radio New Zealand will be on the free-to-air platform; Rupert Murdoch-controlled free-to-air channel Prime TV is still in talks.

Government is contributing “up to $16 million” over five years and is donating frequency rights until analog is switched off, estimating these are worth up to $6 million.

Apart from a small cable TV operation, digital TV here is monopolized by satcaster paybox Sky TV, which is in 42% of homes and carries all the free-to-air channels.

Announcing Freeview, the government said it was important to ensure competition rather than rely on Sky.

Due to New Zealand’s mountainous terrain, however, DTV will reach only 75% of the country.

Remainder will use satellite either through Sky or by purchasing a Freeview dish for around $260.

Decision to use both satellite and terrestrial has raised eyebrows and reps a financial shot in the arm for government-owned THL.

Nobody at the launch was talking about content, and there are still no firm plans beyond putting up digital versions of analog channels at the end of the year.

TVNZ chief exec Rick Ellis said the pubcaster is already working on programming and channel options.

One of the most advanced is for a local 24-hour news channel, largely a looped news bulletin.

But with TVNZ facing a fall in commercial revenue, it is playing down earlier suggestions that it may develop two advertising-free digital channels.

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