Turnbull allows Aussie TV stations to broadcast in HD


news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has introduced a bill which would allow Australia’s free to air television stations to broadcast their primary channel in high definition, in a long-awaited move which will finally unlock the full potential of Australia’s huge fleet of HD-capable television screens.

Australia has one of the highest penetrations of televisions capable of high-definition broadcast (720p or 1080p) in the world, and experienced a short-lived love affair with HD broadcast several years back as the major TV stations operated some HD channels in parallel with their normal standard definition primary channel.

However, regulatory changes associated with the release of the digital dividend spectrum freed up by the closure of the old analogue broadcasting system forced free to air broadcasters to nominate a SD channel as their primary service. This left a situation where only SBS operated a full HD subsidiary channel.

In practice, what this has meant is that Australians have for a number of years not been able to watch free to air HD content on their HD televisions. The issue has been a specific point of aggravation for the sport-loving community. Television stations, too, have been in favour of removing the requirement to broadcast in SD, and have been actively lobbying to achieve this end.

This morning Minister Turnbull tabled a bill in Federal Parliament which would clear up the situation, dubbed The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill 2015. The Minister stated (watch or read his full speech online):

“At present, free-to-air broadcasters are required to provide their primary television service in standard definition. This is a relic of the analog era, introduced at the start of the digital television switchover process to ensure that viewers would have access to at least one digital channel per broadcaster. At the time not all televisions and set-top boxes were capable of receiving high-definition content.”

“High-definition television equipment is now virtually ubiquitous in Australian homes. A Newspoll survey conducted in February 2014, after the completion of the digital switch-over process, found that 96 per cent of all households had a main television set or set-top box that was capable of receiving high-definition content. It is expected that this figure has grown, with high-definition capability standard in televisions and set-top boxes currently on the market.”

“With the completion of digital switch-over and the availability of a range of new television services, many Australians now expect premium free-to-air programming to be provided in high definition—especially events such as live sports.”

“The bill responds to these developments and amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, giving TV networks the flexibility to broadcast the primary service in either in either standard or high definition. It does not change any other existing arrangements regarding the primary service such as captioning, Australian content or anti-siphoning requirements.”

The bill is expected to pass through Federal Parliament relatively rapidly with multi-partisan support. Some figures within Labor — notably lower house MP Ed Husic — have publicly advocated for the changes.

This is fantastic news for all Australians, and I cannot congratulate Minister Turnbull enough on introducing this legislation. For years it has been a ridiculous situation where Australians have not been able to watch free to air HD content on their HD television screens.

This introduction of this bill also shows that Minister Turnbull is open to listening to the wider community in Australia on common sense matters. The free to air television stations and their representatives have been lobbying for this change for some time. It’s a relatively minor legislative change that will make a huge difference to the TV viewing experience in Australia, and a huge difference to the ability of the free to air TV stations to compete with emerging platforms and pay TV giant Foxtel.

Congratulations to the Government for this move, and also those in the Opposition, such as Ed Husic, who also pushed for this change.

One quite note: I wouldn’t expect the TV stations to make this change instantly, once the legislation passes. They will slowly start broadcasting programs in HD, but it won’t all happen overnight. It will be a drip feed of content coming through in HD that will increase in percentage over time. This is to be expected.

Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting


  1. Excellent news and about damn time!

    Any word on whether this will also mean that our local broadcasters will finally switch from MPEG2 to H.264 compression (or hell, H.265 if we REALLY want to get ahead)? MPEG2 was fine in 2005, but here in 2015 it’s utterly redundant.

    • Unfortunately, not all TV’s can receive DVB-T in h.264 format – yes, the media players inside the TV can do it, but the tuners themselves often aren’t configured to be able to receive them. Assume that it will be ~2025 before it actually happens, i feel.

      I’ve had all sorts of problems with this exact issue in respect with h.264 compatibility of tuners as a result of transmodulation of VAST satellite services that are being broadcast in DVB-S2 h.264…

      • Unfortunately, not all TV’s can receive DVB-T in h.264 format – yes, the media players inside the TV can do it, but the tuners themselves often aren’t configured to be able to receive them.

        This is a bit backwards. The tuners can receive them fine, a transport stream is a transport stream regardless of video/audio codecs. It comes down to h.264, some tuners can decode h.264 and others cant. Like AC-3 audio, not all tuners can decode it so that is optional and MP2 audio is required iirc.

      • While I do agree that it will be a long time before we see a switchover to H.264 en masse, particularly on the main channel:

        a) H.264-capable tuners have actually been mandatory for all Australian FreeView-branded devices since its launch in 2009. Virtually all 2010 and later models support it. And while that leaves almost a decade of older MPEG-2 only devices out of the mix…

        b) …We are already streaming in H.264. Seven’s horse racing channel (78) is currently broadcasting in all capital cities (and is set to launch on Prime Ch. 68 in regional areas on August 29) with an H.264 video stream and AAC audio (albeit low bitrate / SD). This is actually the third launch of an H.264 channel, after the shopping channels (which were dialled back to MPEG-2 for the very compatibility issues you complain about) as well as the 3D test channels used for Olympics, State of Origin etc. in 2012. Third time’s a charm.

        c) The Department of Communications actually claim that H.264-capable display penetration is at 80%, and

        d) It has already been suggested by Turnbull and others that RF Ch. 10 is used to transition to H.264 or H.265 in a shared mux similar to that of the UK, where brand new HD simulcasts of the primary channels move to a new frequency alongside the old.

        • As you say, Sevens horse racing channel (78) streams in H.264 (Mpeg-4) but it is still only SD. The same applies to most of the new HD channels, the stream with H.264 but only deliver SD.

          It would appear that the broadcasters are using H.264 for the higher compression available thus using less of their allocated frequency spectrum per channel and not to deliver HD television. This makes perfect sense from a commercial broadcaster’s perspective, they can have more channels which equals more advertising revenue. The trick would be to not completely full the spectrum but leave enough room so they could broadcast at least one program in HD.
          So what we now have, in the main, are are number of new HD television stations using H.264 that some HD receivers can not decode and they are actually delivering mainly SD content at SD resolution.

      • So true.
        It is unfortunate that the survey that produced the high numbers for the high take up of HD TVs did not also look at what sort on encoding they actually receive.
        I purchased a couple of different brands of digital television receivers and thinking to future proof the purchase I purchased HD models. Now HD transmissions have commenced I find that I can only watch 1 out of 6 HD channels because the other five all use h264 (or MPEG-4) and the sets can not be modified, even though one of the selling points was, and still is, firmware upgradeability.
        So now we have 8bit h264, how long before the broadcasters change to 10 bit encoding which will again break comparability. Then they could all move to h265 and on it goes.

        Modern television receivers, even the cheaper ones, have a fairly long physical life but this is now negated by the changes in braodcasting.

    • Any word on whether this will also mean that our local broadcasters will finally switch from MPEG2 to H.264 compression

      Doubt it.

      • Well, I’m sure JB Hifi and Harvey Norman shareholders would both appreciate the share price bump that would come with a government-mandated requirement to only broadcast in H.264/265!

    • Yeah, switching to H.264 is really important. Presumably, the government won’t give the networks any more frequency than they already have (7MHz from memory) so we’re still only going to get 1 HD channel plus a few SD’s. Switching to H.264 would potentially allow more than 1 HD channel. On the negative side, older TV’s and STB’s won’t support it.

      Even the current arrangement of 1x HD and a few SD’s results in woefully poor quality (due to excessive compression to squeeze them all in). Better compression technology like H.264 would improve this considerably.

    • Well we now have some HD channels (90, 74, 76, 78 and 13. Problem is I have two HD TVs that will not decode the H265 stream. The answer, as always, is update your equipment. Right, then someone will decide that H265 is they way to go.

        • I think his first h.265 was a typo, and the end of his point was that as soon as he gets a h.264 compatible telly, they’ll switch the HEVC (h.265) for 4k broadcast.

          That’s how I read it anyway :o)

          • I also forgot to mention in this post, although I did in another, that there is also the potential issue of 10 bit encoding as opposed to the current 8 bit encoding. This would allow better compression at the same quality.
            As I have also mentioned elsewhere, most of these new HD channels are actually still only transmitting, primarily, SD content.
            We had a saying “fitted for, but not with”. This seems to be very much the case.
            Of course what do the commercial broadcasters want to deliver, more channels (more advertising revenue) or fewer higher quality, picture and sound wise, channels?

  2. Honestly not sure why this even matters. It has taken too long so those that want HD content are now accustomed to getting it from everywhere except FTA, besides that HD is the new SD.

  3. It’s about damn time! So after mandatory immunization, this is now the second positive decision to come from the Abbott Gov – not bad for 2 years in power!

    Now all the FTA stations need to do is:

    * Stick to published schedules
    * Consistently play episodes the day after they are aired in the USA/UK
    * Stop jerking fans around by moving shows from time-slot to time-slot
    * Stop chopping chunks out of shows to fit in more ad’s and ruining the stories
    * Start broadcasting full DD5.1 HD audio for all shows that provide it (which these days is pretty much most)
    * Stop wasting their precious digital bandwidth with pathetic “shopping channels”

    If they did these things they might find some of their audiences returning – personally there is very little FTA TV watched in our household now despite us owning a pair of the greatest DVR’s ever released in Australia (The TiVo HD).

    • * Stop wasting their precious digital bandwidth with pathetic “shopping channels”

      This x1000.

      • but….but…Nutriblender…unlocking the goodness locked away in the cells….and…vacuums….and….stuff…mostly the stuff!

        Bah, who am I kidding, I only ever see them if I’m lazy and just use the channel up/down button thingy instead of pressing the actual numbers…

    • “chopping chunks out of shows to fit in more ad’s and ruining the stories”

      I’m only an occasional TV watcher, but that’s appalling. What a low act.

      “wasting their precious digital bandwidth with pathetic “shopping channels””

      To me it looks a lot like a dying gasp of TV stations if they stoop to that level. To see the racing channels is even worse. You’re sort of starting to see why I’m only an occasional TV watcher.

  4. What are the physical limitations in terms of bandwidth for the various multi-channel stream’s quality?

    I.e. if the 7 network is running 4 concurrent TV channels on their spectrum and they want one of these to be in 1080p, how does that effect the quality of the other three channels?

    • iirc It’s a total of 24Mbps or about 20-22Mbps of bandwidth after overheads.

      That’s why FTA TV looks so bad, MPEG2 @ SD resolution really needs about 7Mbps and HD really needs about 15Mbps to look decent. Currently most of the FTA stations cram 4-5 channels into bandwidth that’s really only designed for 2 (using MPEG2).

      • Or they can use h.264 and have more SD channels, which appears to be what they have done. Just checked the new channels out and most are transmitting SD only even if their logo says HD. I guess they are capably of HD and may actually transmit some programs in HD.
        Other changes they may want to embrace, in the interest of better spectrum use, is 10 bit encoding and h.265. Of course this would leave many consumers again with unsuitable equipment!!!

  5. I don’t expect to see a drip feed of HD content more a tidal wave. As soon as the channel is flicked over to HD pretty much all the content should go with it. Simply because most of the content is already HD.

    Almost all US and European is either 720p or 1080i and a lot of Australian television is already HD. Take for example the AFL. Channel 7 this year started producing the AFL in HD for 7Mate and Foxtel. The Cricket World Cup was in HD on Foxtel. A lot of Australian shows broadcast in HD when later picked up and ran on Foxtel.

    The real issue here which as been mentioned is the fact it’s going to be MPEG2 and probably starved for bitrate as are the existing HD multi channels, a real contrast to Foxtel who broadcast using MPEG4 h264 compression with healthy bitrates almost across the board. Then there’s the issue of FTA HD using an anamorphic resolution to save bandwidth as opposed to Foxtel’s 1920x1080i/1280x720p.

  6. This is news? I’ve been sourcing HD television via the Interwebs for ages. However, I suppose there’s nothing quite like watching a gazillion reality shows and watching endless reruns of the Nutribullet in high definition. In that case, I can’t wait…

    • The internet is limited to 24,25 and 30 fps. Not for any technical reason, but more of a failure to understand that deinterlacing ≠ reinterpolation to progressive 50p and 60p.

      • I wouldn’t be so quick to presume. There’s quite a bit of quality 720p60, 1080i50 and 1080i60 content lurking around the internet for download. Obviously your statement rings true for the standard consumer watching iTunes downloads and SVOD services.

      • You’re right with most reality-based show or sport that was shot in 50i or 60i being down-converted and delivered as 25/30p on the net. However it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of content is 24p based for entertainment to give it that “film look” that we all know and love. And 24p content broadcast as 60i is very easy to return to 24p with de-interlacing/ 3:2 pulldown.

  7. “This is a relic of the analog era, introduced at the start of the digital television switchover process to ensure that viewers would have access to at least one digital channel per broadcaster. At the time not all televisions and set-top boxes were capable of receiving high-definition content.”

    An disingenuous statement because it was the legislation itself that caused the ability to sell SD set-top boxes, producing a legacy problem for 15 years. At the behest of News Corp lobbying and Alex Encel.

  8. Wow, what excellent news! Feels surreal to finally hear it. I’d gotten so used to our pathetic multicasting SD Freeview system that I’d almost resigned myself to it staying that way forever.

    I don’t watch commercial TV and like many Australians I now source the majority of my content via the Internet in HD, but I still love the ABC and the thought of receiving ABC1 in 1080i (or 720p at the least) is very appealing indeed. Having said that ABC24 has been upscaled 720p for a long time now (or at least it was still 720p last time I checked the transport stream) and I’ve never seen the ABC utilise this bandwidth with any native HD content (I believe they upscale 576i to 720p simply to meet their outdated “HD quota”). However this reluctance to broadcast native 720p on ABC24 is probably because most news content is received in poor quality format via satellite anyway, and hence the only real benefit would be to studio material shot in HD.

    When this change to out system takes place, I imagine the sensible thing for ABC to do will be to drop ABC24 back down to 576i and switch their primary ABC1 channel to 1080i or 720p so that they can finally start showing entertainment in the format it’s intended to be shown (particularly content sourced from the BBC which has all been produced in HD for many years).

    Can’t wait for this long-overdue transition to take place. As others have mentioned it’s a shame that the switch to H.264 can’t happen at the same time (allowing them to transmit multiple HD channels using far superior compression) but I’ve gotten use to the glacial rate at which our broadcast industry changes. One tiny step at a time.

    On a semi-related note, google the newly announced “ATSC 3.0” to get an idea of what Americans have in store in the future, with UltraHD broadcasts on the way. Obviously this is still a while off, but it’s exciting to see US broadcasters gearing up for massive improvements to their ATSC system including H.265, 4K resolution, HDR, higher colour gamuts, superior reception capabilities, and multiple channels of lossless surround audio (delivered over the air and the net simultaneously). We’ll probably be waiting another twenty years for the Australian DVB-T equivalent, but it’s exciting to read about all the same.

    • But they have used h264 to deliver SD on the new (HD?) channels. Sure they may broadcast one or two programs in HD but most are SD. This is probably because they can have more revenue raising channels using SD, as long as they have enough spectrum left to switch one at a time to HD.

  9. It is utterly sad that we are finally getting actual HD TV at a time when there is virtually nothing worth watching any more except for the sport. FTA these days is all about reality rubbish which I think most people are now completely over so many series and spinoffs. You can’t even get a good movie anymore, they do not seem to be able to afford or want to buy new ones. Every year we seem to get the same library of movies repeated – National Lampoons Xmas Vacation, Rocky, Rambo, etc, etc.
    Finally get HD and nothing to watch, gotta love that.

  10. bout time australia is so wealthy yet its pathetic channels cant even be in HD how sad..just in time to watch the stupid gay afl finals big deal id rather kill myself than listen to any idiot media comment about afl, sad sport…football is king not soccer you wanks football afl is crap women bashers, gamblers and parents fighting each other what a sad shitty sport..seriously cant believe ppl in this low life country actually watch this dumb invented sport..such losers seriously

  11. Well, I’m not sure this is all good.

    Moving to HD is all well and fine, but are we missing the opportunity to move to H265 by allowing freedom to just drop SD and move to HD with MPEG2. If there are unilateral moves to H.264 then some viewers will be left without service since there hasn’t been requirement for h.264 decoders….. and we will consolidate H.264 so putting off H.265.

    The difficulty is that Australia is a small market and whilst there are lots of H.264 chips about H.265 might just be a bit out on our own.

    • If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about TV in Australia over the last twenty years is that it’s learn to accept any improvements, no matter how tiny, as significant. The glacial rate at which broadcast technology changes in this country is beyond depressing (and it’s even worse in regional areas like Tasmania) and the decisions about what formats to embrace never seem to make much sense in the long run. They are often muddied by lobbyists with vested interests in messing up the system, as happened with the infamous Alex Encel (and his overpriced German SDTVs) with his influence on our dreadful multicast SD system in the early 00’s.

      The problem is that any change always has to be aimed at the lowest common denominator. The market as a whole isn’t even ready for H.264, let alone H.265, so I imagine we’ll be viewing MPEG2 for another ten years or so at least. Hopefully the next major upgrade to DVB-T skips H.264 altogether (check out America’s plans to migrate to ATSC 3.0 if you want to be really jealous of a H.265 TV system that is being planned perfectly).

    • There are two ways to decode transport streams, hardware, as in the chip you mentioned, or software, which is how most computers do it.
      TV manufacturers could have all the decoding done via software so that new decoders could be added. In fact you will probably find some higher end models do. Of course even if the manufacturer uses software for the decoding they then have to provide the update. Note that a selling point of most modern units is that they can have the firmware updated but updates seem to be few and far between. Some manufacturers are better then others so that is just one more thing to check out when contemplating a purchase.

  12. so, presumably this will end up being another white elephant. FTA stations mandated to broadcast in HD many years ago, and then they lobbied the government to allow them to go back to SD and “multi channel” on their allocated bandwidths, so they could broadcast more ads.

    What has changed?

    • At the time the multicast laws were still in place (any HD broadcasts also had to be simulcast in SD on a seperate channel). It just wasn’t worth the bandwidth for the limited amount of people with HDTVs. The laws were relaxed somewhat to allow HD-only channels but only for secondary channels (7mate, OneHD etc). If this bill passes it will mean HD can move back to primary channels (without the multicast requirement) and the secondary channels will presumably fall back to SD to make room in the 18mhz of available bandwidth.

      It makes far more sense for Nine, Ten, Seven, ABC and SBS to all be HD with their secondary channels being relegated to SD. Hopefully the networks see the need for this now days given the majority of people now have the large screen HDTVs to take advantage of it.

      Having said that nothing is certain and logic has never been a strongpoint of our TV networks so I’ll believe primary channels in HD when I see them with my own eyes :)

      • We should not get the two definition standards (SD and HD) cloud the argument about encoders being used.
        Two things effect the picture, number of pixels and frequency (I’ll leave it at that and not get technical).
        The definitions refer to the size of the picture, measured in picture elements (pixels). The more pixels the more bandwidth required. Likewise the higher the frequency the more bandwidth is required. (eg think DVD vs Blu-Ray)
        The encoders are used to, amongst other things, compress the video and one of the items that can be manipulated is the frequency. Reduce the frequency you reduce the quality and also the bandwidth required.
        You could also reduce the pixel count as well, thus reducing a movie taken from a Blu-ray disk down to SD or even less quality.
        The encoding used most commonly is MPEG-2. Now we have the newer MPEG-4 (h.264) which can achieve better compression for the same quality. This means that the broadcaster can have High Definition broadcasts or more channels of the same (SD) quality, which is what they appear to have done as most of the content on these new channels is still SD.

  13. Comment:LOL it’s june now and we have 7, 9 & 10 on full hd using h.264 awesome. Goodo! i always thought it was a bit of a waste on 9Gem and 7Mate showing re-runs converted from analogue umatic tapes on their HD channels.

Comments are closed.