Why Free-to-Air TV matches are not HD

In the ultimate of first-world-problems, free to air NRL matches in Australia are broadcast in standard definition (SD), much to the annoyance of anyone with a decent pair of eyes. At the same time as a big game of footy is being broadcast, Channel 9 are bound to be utilising their High Definition (HD) channel for something really spectacular – like a re-run of an old Elizabeth Taylor movie from 19 diggity 8. No disrespect to Liz, but the fast paced action of sport is better suited for the HD channel. So why is it like this?

The main reasons are:

  • Government legislation
  • Government standards
  • Money

Firstly the legislation. With the introduction of Pay-TV in Australia, laws were introduced that are known as ‘anti-siphoning’ laws that prevented all the major sporting events Australians love to watch from being sucked up and only shown on Pay TV providers. Ensuring these major sporting events (Rugby League, AFL, Cricket etc) stayed on free to air TV was a great win for sports fans. The Pay TV providers can show additional events from these sports codes but as long as there is a minimum shown on free to air everything is cool.

Now for the standards. With the introduction of digital TV in Australia and then the switchover which would see the end of analogue television the government decided that the minimum digital TV standard would be Standard Definition (SD), or 480p. With all the short-sightedness of Mr Magoo, SD became the minimum standard digital TV broadcast experience for free to air TV. Additional HD channels came along as broadcasters were allowed to expand their free to air offerings. But these are essential ‘bonus’ channels because they are not required to show anything on them.

And of course money. There’s two factors for this – by offering to show sports in HD on Pay TV, there’s money to be made from people who want to cough up the cash to enjoy the sport they love in glorious HD. The problem is, the HD games they show are not the ones that are shown on free to air TV – or they are delayed if they are. The other money angle relates to ratings. Why don’t the TV stations just simulcast the games and show them on SD (as required) and in HD? The way TV ratings are calculated sees these as separate shows and so instead of ratings of “800,000”, you’d end up with ratings of “500,000” and “300,000”. TV stations love ratings and need them to be as high as possible so they can charge higher advertising rates.

So there we have it. The possible solutions are to change the way TV ratings and advertising rates are calculated. Change the anti-siphoning laws and run the risk of losing access to these sports on free-to-air TV altogether, or to change the minimum standard for digital TV broadcast. I can’t see any of these changing any time soon, so I guess the situation we have now is one we’re stuck with. Well, at least you now know what it is the mess that it is.