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Argentina: Digital TV is Accepted by Consumers, But Its Scope Is Limited

The goal of this article is to discuss the impact of the development of ODT policy, which was centered on certain focus areas. These could be summarized as transmission center installation, set-top box delivery, and content development….

Ana Bizberge*. Argentina, may 2014.

Versión en español | Versão em Português

Open Digital Television (ODT), as Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) is known in Argentina, has been in place for four or five years, since the ISDB-T technical standard was adopted. Through the almost universal support of the government, the deployment of the system occurred at a frenzied pace, and the results are impressive: 82% of the country’s population has coverage, there are 15 nationwide signals as well as local ones, and consumers have shown a great deal of acceptance of DTT. However, this policy has weaknesses. These include the low percentage of implementation due in part to the high penetration of pay television networks in the country, the cultural roots of pay TV in Argentina, and a failure to properly familiarize the general public with the system.

The goal of this article is to discuss the impact of the development of ODT policy, which was centered on certain focus areas. These could be summarized as transmission center installation, set-top box delivery, and content development.

The deployment of ODT is no longer one of the priorities of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration, and it lacks the support that it initially enjoyed. Uncertainty regarding the presidential elections of 2015 has led to an equally uncertain scenario for the development of the digital migration process.

Infrastructure and Equipment.

A total of 82 transmission centers were installed between 2010 and 2014. They are still operational and provide coverage to 82% of the national population. Though the original plan included the construction of 47 towers in 2010 to provide coverage to 75% of the population that year and 95% in 2011, the project was delayed due to difficulties acquiring the land upon which the antennae could be placed, among other causes. In addition, the official plan was marred by political disputes. For example, the Provincial Governor of Córdoba, José Manuel de la Sota, shut down the antennae in his district, arguing that they emitted a high level of radiation and thus posed a significant environmental risk.

Despite the delays, a high level of coverage has been achieved given that the analog switch-off is due to take place in 2019. Compared to other countries in the region, some of which started their migration process earlier, Argentina’s penetration level is twice as high as that of Brazil, which has a coverage rate of 46.8% and an analog switch-off scheduled for 2018. In Mexico, where the switch-off started in Tijuana in 2013 and is scheduled to occur nationally in 2015, only 25.8% of the homes have a digital television, while 69% still has analog TV.

The state subsidy for set-top boxes designed to help move the migration process along was another cornerstone of Argentine public policy. The equipment delivery carried out by the national government has been the main gateway to the system.

Between 2010 and 2012, and especially during 2011, the government provided free equipment delivery in several areas of the country. After the budget that allowed for the purchase of 1.18 million boxes was exhausted, new deliveries have only been made only to specific places.

The coverage level reached with the transmission centers does not correlate to penetration of the home equipment. Despite the effort to provide access, the penetration of DTT is small in absolute terms. However, if one takes into account the universe of the people that receive only open analog TV (four million homes), the ODT impact is not so meager.

Even if adoption is limited, digital TV is accepted by consumers, who identify the number of channels and the fact that the service is free of charge as its main attributes. The population tends to value the multichannel logic of pay television, which shares the roots of that system in Argentine society. Note that pay television has a penetration rate of 76% in Argentina, and it reaches peaks of up to 82 and 95% in the middle and southern provinces. In this context, it is foreseeable that instead of a substitution effect between DTT and cable, the two systems will coexist.

Programming.

The ODT programming chart is composed of 15 nationwide signals with local range signals in the capital cities of some provinces. Though there are fewer ODT channels than cable and satellite TV channels, ODT consumers have a positive opinion of the contents, especially cultural and children’s programming, which is seen as being original.

It is important to note that “national signals” are not allowed under Audiovisual Communication Services Law 26.522. The government used this strategy to provide attractive contents to support the launching phase of ODT. Thus, by means of provisional authorization for uploading signals (as long as they were offered free of charge) to the public platform, two subjects that were forbidden under the audiovisual regulation were validated: the passage of contents from local range to national range and the inclusion of cable signals (for example, C5N and CN23) in open TV without competitive tendering. As an added bonus, these signals are the property of entrepreneurs who are close to the government. Furthermore, the autonomy of the digital television policy with regards to the regulation that stipulates the general conditions of the sector, of which ODT is part, is clear.

In order to ensure that production would no longer be centered in Buenos Aires, which characterized the growth of broadcasting in Argentina, the development of federal contents has been promoted, especially through the Encouragement Program (bidding for prime time) and the Technological Poles Program (which involved the creation of nine production regions with the participation of national universities, local producers and civil society organizations).

The results of these initiatives are limited in scope compared to the goal of federalizing production and changing consumption patterns. Though the Poles Program was able to create local and regional production systems, most of the materials have yet to be broadcasted. Meanwhile, the contents produced through competitive bidding processes have been broadcasted on the government channel (Channel 7) and private channels from Buenos Aires such as Telefé, Channel 9, and América TV (Channel 2). It is, however, important to note that the winners were renowned producers in several cases (Underground, Eyeworks 4 Cabezas, Oruga Films, etc.).

In addition, if one considers the fact that subsidized productions feed into the Argentine Universal Audiovisual Bank —a digital network for the exchange and provision of contents to member channels—, it is possible to conclude that the State ends up providing free content to channels that may already be well-established in the audiovisual industry.

A Promise Is a Promise: And the Third Sector?

In Argentina, audiovisual policy and digital TV in particular have yet to create new voices. The recognition of non-profit organizations as subjects of the law with access to licenses is undoubtedly a huge step, but access has yet to become a reality. Meanwhile, there is no competitive bidding process for assigning digital frequencies to the third sector. The transformation of a model that has historically privileged commercial licensees will remain at the level of discourse.

New actions are being promoted by the agency charged with implementing the Audiovisual Communication Services Law. These include the Competitive Fund for Audiovisual Communication Media and the initiatives for content promotion carried out by the Digital TV Council (which depends on the Ministry of Planning). This will provide funding to the non-profit sector for the production of national and local audiovisual materials. Though the role of the State in the development of the industry is very important, designing models for generating self-sustained content production beyond the support provided by the State is essential.

*Master’s degree in Cultural Industries (UNQ) and a degree in Communications from Universidad de Buenos Aires  (UBA). She is the Academic Coordinator of the Social Communications Undergraduate Program at the University of Social and Entrepreneur Sciences, and Professor of Communications Planning and Policies as part of the Gulliermo Mastrini Chair at UBA.

 

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