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TelstraClear makes move toward digital TV

By John Drinnan

Friday 28th November 2003

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The switch-off for analogue television broadcasts might be a decade or more in the future but there is progress in the push to digital TV with more channels and a better quality picture.

Some small advance came last week with news that TelstraClear is changing its analogue cable television services in Wellington to digital.

Work on the new service is expected to start in the New Year.

Although the hybrid system of fibre-optic cable to the curbside and coaxial cable to homes will not change, the shift next year will entail extra investment.

In particular it will require a big outlay to adopt a new set-top box to convert the digital signal for analogue sets.

The digital package, which will offer stereo sound and wide-screen television capability, will be priced higher than the analogue one.

TelstraClear has 25,000 television customers in Wellington and 15,000 in Christchurch, so the set-top box decision could be expensive.

Although customers will pay more for the digital service, it still might be an easy sell given the complaints about the poor analogue picture quality.

Since February 2002 TelstraClear's cable operation has largely been a reseller for a selection of Sky channels. It also has four exclusive channels.

TelstraClear is two years into a seven-year arrangement with Sky, its only competition.

Outside the Wellington and Christchurch markets, TelstraClear is also working on digital broadcasting using ADSL technology, though this is in the early stages of development.

Meanwhile, TVNZ's digital ambitions have been bought into check with the departure of Marty Behrens, the head of the business development department. Mr Behrens and TVNZ parted company last week over what TVNZ chief executive Ian Fraser described as different visions for the company's future.

Mr Behrens came under fire for an aggressive approach to demanding equity from programme makers for his fledgling TV programming distribution operation. But Mr Behrens had also been active in revitalising TVNZ's hapless campaign to get a digital television service up and running after failed attempts in the past.

However, his full steam ahead approach had queered the pitch for TVNZ and its sensitive relationship with the government during a big rethink on policy toward public broadcasting.

The prospects may never have been so good for TVNZ to win ministerial support for a free-to-air digital service with Steve Maharey in charge of the broadcasting portfolio.

Under Mr Maharey's predecessor, Marian Hobbs, the government pulled the plug on TVNZ's digital ambitions and got closer to Sky Television ­ and its established digital services.

But Mr Maharey has a more traditional Labourite view on public broadcasting and is sceptical that it can be advanced while reliant on Rupert Murdoch interests ­ when analogue finally ends.

Now that Mr Behrens has moved on, TVNZ has indicated that it does not intend to replace him. It has employed a senior broadcasting executive, William (aka Bill) Earl, to assess digital television options from overseas and to act as a senior policy adviser to Mr Fraser.

Mr Earl is a veteran of New Zealand television and a contemporary of Mr Fraser. He is one month into a six-month contact.

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