Digital TV in shackles

Once upon a time, TV engineers and the broadcasting industry strove to make watching the tube an ever better experience for the mass audience they coveted. Black-and-white screens went from their original circular shape to rectangles, the images got bigger, better focused, and achieved higher resolution over time. After colour TV, the Europeans even outdid the original American NTSC system by coming up with PAL – a technology designed to withstand all kinds of disturbances and dependably deliver a high-fidelity colour image into every household.

Adding to the limited capacity of terrestrial TV, cable providers increased the choice of channels, and over the years, broadcasters invested substantial amounts of money to add visual richness (i.e. production value) to their programmes. This reached a point where your average primetime TV drama seemed to be of similar quality to the latest multi-million dollar Hollywood movie. Screens got wider to match theatrical projection, and eventually, high-definition television (HDTV) started to catch up with cinema in terms of image quality.

Not anymore.

Under the pressure of the Internet, several economic crises, dwindling advertising revenues, growing competition, and a demand for higher profit margins, the TV industry has moved from providing luxury goods to becoming a cheap supplier, as I have previously noted. Production value of the programmes as well as the quality of the formerly fancy and sought-after jobs in the industry are declining, and even Public Broadcasting has a hard time withstanding that trend and safeguarding its specific role.
Something similar is happening in the area of TV technology. While the sector’s move to digital is not bad as such, the switch-over is actually being misused to extort more money from the audience in exchange for worse service. Transmission bandwidth – and therefore image quality – is reduced to save money. People are led to believe that they receive high-definition broadcasts when what they watch is, in fact, regular TV scaled up and getting fuzzy in the process. Digital rights management keeps viewers from recording (or, in some cases, even watching) some of their favourite programmes. Many hardware manufacturers willingly cave in to demands from the film industry rather than providing consumers with the best usability and compatibility of their products.

The German (private-equity-owned) TV cable providers as well as the (State of Luxemburg-owned) Astra direct-to-home satellite service now set new benchmarks for the alienation of gullible customers. On 27 July, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an extensive article about the topic which is, indeed, substantiated by everyday experience. For example, the cable providers force their clients to use proprietary set-top-boxes, which intentionally limit the potential features of digital television. But if a customer wants to get rid of that crappy box and buys a quality TV set with an integrated common interface (CI), the cablers routinely refuse to deliver the conditional access module (CAM) he needs to put his perfectly legal and paid-for smart card into operation.

To escalate this whole disgrace into outright ridiculousness, cable companies prohibit independent CAM manufacturers (under legal pretences) from even telling the public that they offer hardware on the free market that works with most smart cards provided by the cable operators. Some manufacturers of TV sets have folded under the pressure to the almost unbelievable extent that they do not admit that the appliances they sell in Germany are, in actual fact, equipped with digital cable receivers, and delete the respective functionality from their user menus.

Astra, on the other hand, in its latest move, tries to use the HDTV switch-over as a means to make the audience pay for what is supposed to be free-TV. If you want to watch the German commercial free-TV channels such as RTL or ProSieben in high-def over satellite, you need yet another set-top box with yet another smart card and pay yet more fees.
So far, however, German customers have shown resilience to such dubious offers. While more and more households boast state-of-the-art flat screens, the take-up of digital cable is poor. In fact, so many people stubbornly keep watching analogue cable that some cable operators have taken to “re-analogising” digital channels – or, in other words, offering more plain old easy-to-use conventional TV again. Astra’s various efforts to milk free-TV viewers have failed repeatedly over the last few years, and it does not require a fortune-teller to predict that the latest attempt is bound to be a non-starter as well.

Fortunately for viewers, HDTV is also scheduled to be introduced next year by the German Public Broadcasters. True to their remit (and ample licence fee funding), they will not impose extra financial or technological hurdles to reception and thus probably knock the commercial competitors back into shape fast.

But how come that customer service and user-friendliness seem to be unheard of in the German television distribution sector? The simple reason: it is a monopolistic business. There is only one relevant satellite provider, and the three major cable companies have regional exclusivity in their respective areas.

Moreover, this sorry situation does not only hurt consumers – it also thwarts innovative TV channels and services. Newcomers cannot go analogue, because there is no spectrum available. Yet they cannot go digital either, because the customer base is far too small to build up any kind of sustainable business. And consumers do not embrace digital because the infrastructure providers put stupid obstacles in their way.

Now this is a classic area where companies and consumers at the same time could really benefit from European regulation. Service neutrality and technological openness would unleash a lot of creativity and new business opportunities. If people could decide themselves which end devices they want to buy and use, if technology manufacturers could freely compete by offering ever-better functionalities, if cable and satellite providers were obliged to carry any service and to unbundle their offers so customers could really choose which services they wanted to subscribe to – then, the population would embrace the new opportunities very fast and create a whole new market.