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The decline of digital terrestrial television in Argentina

DTT will continue in Argentina but without the driving force of the State. The three pillars that guided its development were the deployment of infrastructure, the distribution of decoders to low-income members of the population and content development. Within this context the following is a brief assessment of the actions taken during the 2009-2015 period.

Ana Bizberge*/Argentina/ June 2016.

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Open Digital Television (ODT) was one of the major initiatives in technological development of the government of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner along with, at least in terms of the discourse, a change to the historical rationale of the sector, characterized by access difficulties to a limited number of open channels, the ownership concentration of broadcasters and production in the city of Buenos Aires, with the resulting homogenization of content.

After December 10, 2015 and the arrival of the new government led by Mauricio Macri, various measures were implemented that had an impact on the audiovisual sector in general: the creation of a Ministry of Communications and eradication of the Ministry of Planning, which until then had been responsible for ODT; intervention in the audiovisual and telecommunications regulatory bodies, AFSCA and AFTIC, and their subsequent merger in order to create the National Authority for Communications (ENACOM) through Decree 267/2016. This decree also amended various articles of the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services (SCA) and the Digital Law of Argentina, favoring concentration in the sector, which prompted a request by social organizations for a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). For a more detailed analysis on the effects of the decree, please see here and here.

In addition, a «Commission for the Preparation of the Draft Law for Reform, Updating and Unification» was formed with the aim of drafting a new «law of convergence,» all taking place in a setting that includes the participatory development of regulations, academic activities and discussions with organizations. However, the design of the related public policy has been entrusted to the international consulting firm McKinsey which, among other elements, has developed a «Strategic Business Plan» for the State company ARSAT, which is responsible for the construction of satellites and the distribution platform for digital TV.

Today, ODT is not a priority. The three pillars that guided its development during the Kirchner government were the deployment of infrastructure, the distribution of decoders to lower income families and content development. In this context, there is a need for a brief assessment of the actions taken in the 2009-2015 period, and how these three areas have been redefined with the arrival of the new government.

Assessment of public policy (2009-2015)

Two years ago, when digital TV had been running for four years, we developed an assessment of the development of public policy. In this section, we will revisit and update some of those ideas.

The greatest success of public policy was the deployment of infrastructure. After 6 years of operation, there are now 82 transmission stations, which cover 85% of the country’s population.

In addition, through the My Digital TV program, the government distributed 1.6 million decoders. However, the system did not reach a significant level of penetration. A study undertaken by the Master’s Program in Cultural Industries of the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes (2014) identified a penetration by the end of 2012 of just 5% of total viewers. Other reports by the Cultural Information System of Argentina (SinCA) and ARSAT, both carried out in 2014, refer to an ODT penetration of 7%.

The main challenges were content, the entry of new players and new TV screens. Through the State-owned ARSAT, 41 public and private transmission signals (16 at nationwide level) were distributed. According to the aforementioned study on Cultural Industries, users of ODT have a positive opinion of the contents of the new system, particularly children’s and cultural content, reflected by the fact that according to the survey, the transmission signals that had been most viewed were Encuentro and Paka Paka.

Through the now defunct Ministry of Planning, the Film Institute (INCAA) and the National Interuniversity Council (CIN), competitions were funded to facilitate new TV producers. While these competitions expanded opportunities for independent producers whose programs were broadcast on the channels of the city of Buenos Aires, more established producers often were beneficiaries.

These competitions, together with content production for the transmissions of the Ministry of Planning ACUA Mayor and ACUA Federal, generated more than 4,000 hours of programming that are now stored in the Audiovisual Bank of Argentinean Universal Content (BACUA) and can be used by affiliated channels. In addition, at least part of said programming is being transmitted on the Open Digital Content (ODC) Internet platform, which has 555 TV programs and 2000 hours of program content.

While the programs generated through competitions were broadcast on free-to-air TV channels, productions made through the «Polos» program (which established networks of local and regional production in order to decentralize the production of Buenos Aires), had more difficulty appearing on screens, along with generally less institutional support and budget allocation from the Ministry of Planning itself.

In early 2015, AFSCA made a call for bids for 82 broadcast licenses for digital TV. Of the bids submitted in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires, Area Digital and the UOCRA Foundation were both awarded licenses, while the presentations made by Perfil and Fontevecchia, which had been initially rejected, were later approved by ENACOM.

AFSCA also granted licenses for low power signals for transmissions on ODT to the nonprofit organizations Barricada Tevé, Cooperative Pares, and Urbana TV. Barricada began its digital broadcasts in May of the present year using Signal 33, an experimental transmission signal used by Channel 13 (the Clarín Group), and which should have been relocated but wasn’t, which is causing transmission interference.

The leaden backpack”

ODT is no longer a government priority and was described as the «leaden backpack» of ARSAT by Hector Huici, Minister for Information and Communications Technology. Huici also suggested that companies could incorporate private capital to improve their business plan, and that allocation of ODT frequencies would continue but that, in the face of convergence, more flexible management of the spectrum was anticipated, so that allocations would not be for specific uses, rather those who received a frequency could decide whether to use it for television or data at their discretion.

For its part, the president of the satellite company, Rodrigo De Loredo, said the plan will continue but efforts will be focused on the development of optical fiber, making it clear that the company will operate in the wholesale market and not compete with private companies in last mile deployment.

The statements made by Huici and De Loredo are in line with the objectives set out by the McKinsey consulting firm for public policies that include, among others, the need to promote the growth of mobile telephony and broadband, encourage investment and define the role of ARSAT to support infrastructure development.

After the new government took office, new infrastructure for ODT was put on hold. The construction of 32 transmission towers had been planned, 8 of which were under construction. In addition, the distribution of equipment via the My Digital TV plan was suspended.

In terms of content, which is the area administered by Hernán Lombardi, Minister of Media and Public Content, a brake was placed on all public tenders for the creation of programs through production companies, and dismissals resulted from the fall in contracts to provide services in the area of public administration.

«Four million was invested in fictional programs that were never broadcast… There will be no more waste, management will be discretionary» Lombardi promised in reference to the previous administration. The truth is that this statement underlines a certain distance but does not present a definition regarding plans and lines of work for the area.

For now, and within the framework of the distribution agreements between ARSAT and CIN, it was recently announced that the transmission signal of Universidad Villa María would be joining the ODT grid in the province of Cordoba, which is where the president of ARSAT originally comes from.

Summing up, ODT will continue but without State momentum. That experience, which served as a model for other countries in the region that have already implemented or are about to undertake the analog switch-off (for example, Mexico and Brazil in terms of the subsidy provided to the population to purchase equipment) has been relegated to a secondary level behind the development of mobile telecommunications and broadband, thus following the global trend. Both networks have become increasingly important in the delivery of audiovisual content. Although in Argentina the penetration levels of pay-to-view TV are over 80%, and in all three cases (ODT, mobile and broadband), and unlike free-to-air television, they still require payment of a subscription fee for content access.

According to the industry slogan «content is king,» and the development of ODT remains key to ensuring access that does not discriminate according to an ability to pay.

* Content editor of Observacom. Doctorate in Social Sciences (UBA- IEALC) and Master’s degree in Cultural Industries (UNQ). Lecturer in Communication Policies and Planning (UBA).

RELATED LINKS:

Regional Report on Diversity and Digital TV 2016

Argentina Report 2016: Regulation and public policies for Digital TV