Arresting the race to the bottom requires a strong arm
The launch of Nine's Extra channel as a rival to Seven's TV4Me shows that the current licensing regime, which allows each of the commercial operators to run a datacasting service, is too ripe for exploitation.
Broadly speaking, datacasting adds a data layer over a digital TV service, which for all intents and purposes looks like an additional channel.
According to the law of the land, a datacasting service cannot carry "matter that would be equivalent to a television news, drama, sports, documentary, lifestyle or entertainment program, or a commercial radio program". But datacasters are allowed to show parliamentary proceedings, email, program guide information, interactive computer games and informative content that enables or involves a financial transaction.
It's that last part which Seven and Nine are cashing in on.
It's quite fair to argue that if anyone finds content like this boring or offensive to just ignore it. In fact, ignoring it is simpler than avoiding a show that one finds detestable. That's because most TVs enable you to delete stations from its memory. If you dislike, say Today Tonight or find The Shire too low brow, you can flick channels, but it's all too easy to flick back to it by accident — and deleting a station because of one show is a tad extreme.
While it's easy to escape the content on these home shopping channels, it's impossible to escape the consequences. Each network has a finite amount of broadcasting bandwidth — around 21Mbps — to play with. All other things being equal, the more bandwidth you allocate to a channel, the better looking it will be.
That's why, despite the fact that they're broadcasting at the same resolution, Seven and 7Two look noticeably different, with the primary channel (Seven) given nominally more bandwidth than the secondary channel.
So, the capacity to display these new advertorial channels has to come from somewhere. And, as forum posters up and down the land have noted, the channels that are being robbed to pay Paul are the HD channels. This will have a noticeable impact on native HD content shown on those channels, for example, the upcoming Olympic Games.
A quick glance through the program guide for both TV4Me and Extra shows that neither channel is airing the innovative and interactive services initially envisaged (rather foolishly) by the Federal Government for datacasting services. In fact, the closest we get to interactivity are the hours of Psychic TV on TV4Me and overnight sessions of Chat TV on Extra, where you pay $3.25 to see your message potentially appear on national TV as you supposedly chat to buxom young babes.
The government needs to close the loopholes in its regulations, that way our precious broadcasting spectrum isn't wasted on paid shows trying to prise the foolish from their gold.
Disclaimer: CNET TV airs on TV4Me.