By Eng Obam

Globally, it’s an interesting time in the world of digital broadcast television. On one hand, some countries in Europe, Asia and the USA have already switched over their broadcasting systems to the digital platform. On the other hand, a few countries in Africa and other parts of the developing world are in various stages of finally switching off analogue signals, thus ending long digital/analogue simulcast (simultaneous broadcasting) periods.

Meanwhile, broadcasters particularly in Africa are still cautiously contemplating the massive task of migration from analogue to digital TV broadcasting. Add to this the vast numbers ranged somewhere in between, and the result is an industry undergoing metamorphosis one gradual element at a time.

Analogue TV transmission platform has been in use for several years now enabling broadcasters to air their programs and viewers to watch their favourite TV programmes. Despite being popular for such a long time, the analogue platform is limited in terms of features, quality of signal reception and sound; and therefore, the need for a better technology: digital broadcasting.

The transition to digital broadcasting doesn’t have to be all pain and no gain. By being innovative, broadcasters can leverage digital technologies to deliver enhanced services that can not only help with audience share, but also lead to revenue sources.

Yet it is not only the advent of digital that has changed the broadcasting industry. For several decades, pay TV platforms such as cable and satellite have enjoyed high penetration in many countries. Moreover, new services such as Internet Protocol TV (IPTV), mobile TV and internet download have dramatically altered the way in which TV audiences view their favorite programmes. The audiences are demanding more choice and voice as to where and how and when they watch TV, inevitably preferring those platforms that provide the greatest flexibility.

Terrestrial free to air (FTA) TV has been the default option for years in many countries. FTAbroadcasters have often scheduled their programmes at their own convenience with their target audiences having very little say as to when their favorite programmes would be aired.  The advent of digital broadcasting has caused the ground to shift with many more nimble players coming into the market.

Therefore, confronted by stiff competition and a tough economic climate, it is perhaps little wonder that some FTA broadcasters are dragging their feet in making the transition to digital. At first glance, it might appear that not much is gained for the significant cost. However, as evidenced by several highly successful digital terrestrial TV (DTT) launches in Asia, North America and Europe, creative and strategic use of the DTT platform can lead not only to broadcasters regaining market share, but also to new revenue sources as a result of the enhanced services.

Although the cost of digital transmission is significant, it can be mitigated by several factors. For example; infrastructure sharing can reduce the total capex by around 40% for two broadcasters sharing common radio frequency (RF) infrastructure, with greater savings achieved through a shared multiplex. There are opex efficiencies as well since staff costs, electricity bills and monthly maintenance costs for transmitting stations can be reduced significantly.


Figure 1: Infrastructure sharing saves costs

In Kenya, infrastructure sharing is not common as our broadcasters more often than not tend to compete on coverage instead of content provision. But this mentality will have to change in the digital broadcasting where coverage is legislated by having designated broadcast signal distributors (infrastructure providers) and competition is on the basis of content alone; not to mention the huge cost benefits of using a common network.

In Kenya there are two (2) licensed and designated signal distributors: SIGNET, a subsidiary of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and Pan African Networks Group (PANG) Limited. Both can provide services to FTA and pay TV service providers.

Given the inevitability of the transition to digital – and the increased need to compete on the basis of content – the onus is on the broadcasters to make the most out of content So, although the timeline and approach in Kenya, as is in most countries; has been significantly influenced by the government seeking, among other objectives; the “digital dividend”, the transition is now gaining momentum among broadcasters, who are keen to get something out of it as well.

We have new broadcasters who operate only on the digital platform and who, making full use of their imagination and the capabilities of the digital technology, will soon start reaping the many benefits that digital brings. First, digital will enable them to deliver more than one channel, which then allows them to offer special interest programming; secondly, it could give them a route into pay TV.

Special interest (or thematic) channels, such as movies and sports, have traditionally been a stalwart of subscription cable and satellite services, and are proven audience – and advertiser – attractions. Moreover, the ability to broadcast more than one channel opens up opportunities for cross-promoting and cross-scheduling. The challenge for terrestrial broadcasters, who have been providing conventional free-to-air (FTA) services, is competing for the necessary content rights. This is where the “pay TV” element comes in. By introducing specialized channels such as major sporting events, movies, drama, comedy, news, farming, etc; pay TV can be a viable top-up option for terrestrial broadcasters.

Figure 2: Integrated Digital TV (iDTV)

Nevertheless, it is still the battle for audience that lies at the heart of the terrestrial TV business challenge-and here again the functionality of the digital platform offers new opportunities. High-definition TV (HDTV), interactivity and catch-up TV are new services that can allow broadcasters to potentially offer enhanced services at par with other platforms.

Visually, HDTV captures viewers with crystal clear resolution and razor sharp detail akin to movie-theatre screens. Combined with the capacity to deliver enhanced Dolby Digital surround sound, HDTV produces an advanced home theatre effect. With HDTV, broadcasters can offer far higher resolution and picture quality than exists with analogue technology. Hence HDTV can be used to differentiate between platforms while interactivity technology though being there, it is still premature to determine what its’ impact will be.

“Catch-up TV”, on the other hand, where programmes are available for free download for a set period after airing, is already proving popular in many countries. The rise of “catch-up” TV and video-on-demand, exemplify the viewing habits of a new generation of TV viewers who demand greater flexibility in viewing – in terms of both time of day and video platform. Here, the Internet is playing a significant role as well.

One way of leveraging this trend in the favour of terrestrial broadcasters is to embrace hybrid personal video recorders (PVRs). Hybrid services are the merging of television and Internet and they can enable terrestrial FTA broadcasters to offer similar services to pay TV. Viewing habits are changing as people want to watch TV when they want and when they are ready, and smart PVRs simplify the process. Yet it leaves control with the broadcaster, who can also reap extra revenue through ,for example, paid downloads of movies.

Figure 3: The PVR

Despite tough competition from other platforms, digital terrestrial television is expected to stand firm particularly in its “free” incarnation in today’s digital environment. There are many new ways of consuming TV and broadcasters must be open to these and make sure they are part of it.

The traditional model of selling advertisements around programmes will hold, but broadcasters need to build other things onto that. In many ways, broadcasters need to reinvent themselves – they are no longer limited to delivering simple programmes by terrestrial means alone, they can consider a range of new services and platforms to provide a complete entertainment solution. Those that adapt to change and respond innovatively to competitive pressures will be the ones that survive in the long term.

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