by Lindsay Shelton
With Wellington’s analogue TV signals switching off at the end of this month, it’s time to survey what we’re being offered on the Freeview digital platform.
That’s the system for those of us who don’t want to pay for television, and who are not persuaded by the mix of channels offered on the Sky monopoly.
I got off to a bad start with Freeview. I had been looking forward to watching the international news programmes which it scheduled 24 hours a day with the admirable Stratos service. But two months after I became a Freeview customer, it pulled the plug on Stratos, which was forced to relocate behind the Sky paywall. Freeview needed Stratos to balance its programme offerings, and should have found a way of keeping it. The experience left me feeling that Freeview had let me down.
But now an addition to the Freeview lineup will help restore some of my faith in its potential. The 24-hour Al Jazeera news service  is to be added to the Freeview lineup in November. (It’ll also be on Sky, where it began transmitting this week.)
Al Jazeera, with headquarters in Qatar, has newsrooms and journalists (including New Zealanders) all over the world. During the war in Afghanistan it was the only TV news service to cover the war live – from its Afghan office. It was also the only international network to have correspondents in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. In recent years it has competed on equal terms with the longer-established BBC News service. But the BBC is available in New Zealand only if you pay a subscription to Sky, though it’s a free service in Britain.
Since the disappearance of Stratos, Freeview has had only one channel providing 24-hour news – an English-language service from China TV in Beijing. It’s seemed a very skewed arrangement for New Zealand’s only 24-hour free to air television news service to be provided by China, though in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that the Chinese have been broadening their coverage. They have a correspondent in Damascus, they are expanding their staff in the United States, and they provide reports from South America on topics that you don’t see anywhere else. But they’re a long way from being able to match the maturity and experience and breadth of coverage that Al Jazeera so impressively offers.
If Freeview had wanted to be pro-active, there are many other English-language news services available via satellite. France and Germany have strong news services, which they’ve chosen to put behind Sky’s paywall, when they could have reached a much broader audience if they’d done a deal with Freeview. In Korea last month I discovered that even Korea has an excellent English-language news service. Australia does too (of course.) There’s so much that Freeview could be delivering if it wanted to offer a wider choice. But till the arrival of Al Jazeera, it seems that the Chinese will continue as the only news service that’s delivering bulletins 24 hours a day to New Zealand’s digital free to air system.
Last weekend, Freeview lost another channel when TVNZ pulled the plug on its “U” attempt to reach a youth audience. TVNZ’s lack of vision is shown by its replacement for U – a repeat of TV2. (Hey, let’s have a second viewing of The Mentalist!) Three of Freeview’s 18 Wellington channels are now repeats, delayed by one hour. And what’s the most recent addition to the Freeview lineup? Not one! But two! A second shopping channel.
Nevertheless the pending arrival of Al Jazeera has reminded me I must acknowledge that Freeview does have one star performer – Maori TV, with its substantial nightly line-up of original local material and its impressively diverse range of New Zealand performers. Choice, too, has found a niche on Freeview, not with much local programming but with some of the thoughtful shows that TVNZ would have shown in the days that it was a public service broadcaster. And TVNZ? Forget it. It’s concentrating on buildings and technology .