5 Nov 2017

Broadcasters tuning out of television

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 5 November 2017

You can now get the shows you want from our biggest TV broadcasters without tuning in to them - or even owning a TV set. This week’s All Blacks games are available live online (legally) without a subscription to Sky Sports. What does the rise of TV on-demand mean for broadcast television as we know it?

'The Vietnam War' by Ken Burns - available on demand in New Zealand but not on air.

'The Vietnam War' by Ken Burns - available on demand in New Zealand but not on air. Photo: screenshot

When Ken Burns' 10-part series The Vietnam War screened in US last month, The New York Times told its readers: "It will break your heart and win your mind." The series has been sold to 82 countries and it was good news for history fans when TVNZ acquired it for New Zealand.

But you won’t see it on TVNZ1 playing out over 10 weeks late at night - all 18 hours of The Vietnam War are available online at TVNZ on Demand instead.

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

“Four times more content will be made available to viewers on-demand and we’ve added an additional 400 hours of content this month alone," TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick said recently when announcing the broadcaster's programmes for 2018.

Two weeks ago, telco Vodafone launched Vodafone TV, which brings together Sky TV, free-to-air channels and online video on demand (VOD) services such as Netflix in one cloud-based digital system.

Sky TV and New Zealand Rugby struck a deal to offer live pay-per-view streams of the All Blacks and Māori All Blacks matches this weekend and next weekend on the website AllBlacksTV.com.

As if to hammer home its 'in the new, out with the old' digital strategy, Sky TV scrapped its DVDs by mail service Fatso last month. Its customer base had been decimated by online video on demand services like Lightbox and Netflix.

And back in July, TVNZ began live streaming all three of its TV channels - TVNZ 1, 2 and Duke.  

All these might seem like small technological tweaks, but they are also signs of a fundamental shift.

You no longer need to tune into a broadcast signal to see New Zealand’s most popular channels from our biggest TV broadcasters - and you don’t even need a TV set any more.

Live All Blacks games this week are available for the first time online (legally) without a subscription to Sky Sports.

Live All Blacks games this week are available for the first time online (legally) without a subscription to Sky Sports. Photo: screenshot / AllBlacksTV.com

Tech commentator Peter Griffin said all this called into question the the lifespan of broadcast TV as we know it today - especially on Freeview, the government-backed platform for free-to-air digital TV.

"In the next ten years, are we going to need all that infrastructure beaming Freeview around the country when internet connectivity is getting to the point where you can do this over the internet no problem?" he said on Newstalk ZB in July.

Jason Foden, general manager of Freeview

Jason Foden, general manager of Freeview Photo: supplied

But Freeview is getting with the digital programme too.

It is planning a new Freeview On Demand platform offering New Zealand broadcasters’ live channels alongside their video on-demand content. Freeview is also promising international on-demand content that's not available on TV here.

"The change we are all facing in broadcasting is people adopting new ways of listening and viewing on mobile devices. They want to get their transmission not over airwaves but though their internet connection," Freeview general manager Jason Foden told Mediawatch.

"In a big concession by the major broadcasters, they've put their brands aside and we're creating a single catalogue on Freeview on Demand. You'll see 7 Days next to My Kitchen Rules next to The Block, next to Hunting Aotearoa," said Mr Foden, who joined Freeview this year from TVNZ where he was the head of TVNZ On Demand.  

"It'll just be about the content. It reflects what the viewers think. They say, 'I'm a real fan of 7 Days but I'm not necessarily a fan of TV3. I'm not going to sit down and watch TV1, but I do want to watch Country Calendar,'" he said.

So does this mean that TV channels as we know them - so aggressively promoted and branded by the broadcasters - are actually on the way out? In the near future, will we be choosing from streams of online content and and programs available on-demand?

"There is a place for broadcast TV and a curated "lean-back" experience. If you're just choosing between different shows it's a very 'lean-forward' experience. Also there's the tyranny of choice. You have to ask yourself: 'What should I be watching'?," Mr Foden said.

"People will dip in and out of other services but they will still want to watch the six o'clock news. You can't watch the final of The Block anywhere other than live on Mediaworks' channel Three.

"But Freeview is an open access platform and we want to take this to the next level. We would be looking for the most popular video-on-demand services to come on board," he said.

Which ones?

"I can't tell you but you can imagine that the most popular services are YouTube, Netflix and Lightbox and those are the sorts of services we're looking at."

Hosting international VOD services, and pay-TV and subscription-based services will be a big departure.

Freeview was set up as a joint venture of the free-to-air NZ broadcasters with backing from the government so viewers could continue to get existing and new TV channels for free after the digital switch-over.

Is it in the interests of New Zealand's free-to-air broadcasters to have rivals for eyeballs on the platform they control?

"They acknowledge that people are increasingly using alternatives and they don't have a monopoly on content," Mr Foden said.

"It would be folly to pretend the likes of Netflix and Lightbox don't exist - it's up to them to lift their game and perform on this platform and the platform has to remain relevant as one place.

"The heart of Freeview is always going to be live free-to-air TV, but it's an open-access platform. If you want to buy these services, why should we stand in your way?"