“There is the risk that private TV companies will no longer have their previous level of power and influence, and not just in terms of the population, but also with respect to the government and politicians”.
Cosette Castro */ Brazil, May 2015
Nearly 10 years after the adoption of Decree 5.820/ 2006 that established the model for digital TV (ISDB-TB), Brazil has finally decided to make interactive DTV a public policy priority. However, this process has not been easy.
During the government of ex-president Lula da Silva, an investment of 75 million reals was made in this project, which was the first time in over 20 years that universities and research institutes in Brazil received a financial contribution in order to develop domestic technology.
Created in the laboratories of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ) and the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB) – the middleware Ginga software layer allows interactivity to be obtained in terms of remote control, multiprogramming, accessibility (for the deaf and blind), mobility and portability. This is to say, open digital broadcast television, with the use of interactivity, allows for social inclusion and can help reduce the digital gap.
The fact that such television has been developed in open source, that a change is proposed in the relationship between audiences and open television broadcasters (through bidirectional TV and remote control), and that it stimulates social and digital inclusion among peoples who have a visual culture (as is the case of Latin America and the Caribbean), has led to another 16 countries adopting the same standard of digital TV.
Up until 2014, the country that had invented Ginga still hadn’t done its housework. There were no training or research centers, or any production of interactive audiovisual content for digital television and media convergence, although around ten laboratories did receive some minor funding assistance during the last year of the government in order to develop content using Ginga.
On the other side of the frontier, neighboring countries such as Argentina and Uruguay updated their media laws, a first step towards the democratization of communications. And Argentina went even further: it created nine decentralized nodes for the production of digital audiovisual content and eight new free channels. Unfortunately, in the midst of the conflict with the Clarin Group, the incentive for interactivity also lost impetus until almost completely disappearing. Interactive tests have continued in Ecuador, and some interesting initiatives have been noted in Costa Rica.
As to such developments in Brazil, the federal public network, TV Brazil, which belongs to the Brasil de Comunicación (EBC) company, has created the first public services channel (the Brazil 4D Project), which incorporates interactivity and multi-programming.
Development of the Brazil 4D Project began in 2013 with support from the World Bank, with work during its first stage carried out in João Pessoa, the capital of Paraíba, a province in northeastern Brazil, and targeting 100 low-income families. Today, the project is in its second stage of field tests, now taking place in Brasilia, the Federal Capital, with 300 low-income families that are recipients of the Programa Bolsa Familia (Family Grant Program).
It was only after the Brazil 4D Project won six awards, two of them at international level, that the new government began to incorporate the social and digital elements promoted by the project. A study by the University of Campinas (SP) has indicated that free, interactive digital television services have contributed seven billion reals to the public purse over 10 years. These services benefitted around 14 million families – or approximately 60 million people – that participated in the government program.
On 15 May a decoder from analogue to digital TV was approved. On the one side, public television companies, social movements and academia supported a decoder with full interactivity, that is, with the capacity to reproduce various interactive audiovisual formats, contribute towards the diversity of open programming and provide interaction with audiences.
On the other, private companies and telecommunications firms (which won the tender for the 700 MHz TV spectrum), advocated a simpler type of decoder, which would improve only image and sound, and cost people four dollars less.
Behind this issue was the fear of competition, the future risk of losing their audience to the public channels, as well as the concern of a population that instead of being voiceless would become more participatory. And finally, there is the risk that private TV companies will no longer have their previous level of power and influence, and not just in terms of the population, but also with respect to the government and politicians.
The federal government has publicly defended the interactivity conversion boxes, announcing that they would be donated to 14 million low-income families as part of the Family Grant Program. The approval of full interactivity in the decoders on 15 May also highlighted the strenuous conflict between the business world and those who propose a society based on social equity.
And yes, full interactivity was approved and the 512 memory ram guarantees quality interactive videos. However, and given that in such decisions of consensus there is always one exception, the modem that enables the return channel, that is the dialogue of the population with the TV company, has not been included in the budget for the public call to tender. And neither was it originally proposed by the Ministry of Communications in Dilma Rousseff’s previous government.
Thus, the decision was either to propose the inclusion of the modem, so changing the public tender (and running the risk of years spent in the courts dealing with litigations brought by private firms), or approve the public tender and full interactivity and initiate a second stage of work searching for the necessary resources for the modem. The decision taken was the second option, to find the extra resources needed to fund the modem.
Telecommunications companies have acquired 700 MHz of the TV spectrum for 3.6 billion reals. That cost was divided as follows: 1 billion for the transmitters; 1 billion for converter boxes with interactivity, and close to 1.3 billion to fund a national advertising campaign on digital television and the analogue switch-off that will take place over three years. The 300 million reals left over should be used to purchase modems, according to the president of the Gired/Anatel Working Group, although a financial contribution from the federal government will certainly be necessary.
Clear public policies regarding this sector may highlight the level of involvement of the Dilma Roussef’s new government with the country’s weakest social groups. Interactivity allows for more public channels, programming, diversity, research, and jobs in the field of communication, and thus a new role for public television.
For the first time ever, public broadcasters have the opportunity to expand the number of channels, to (re) define the type of programming and levels of interactivity with audiences, whether with people who are at home, or using a remote control, engaging with mini portable TVs, or even using their mobile phones with the One Seg system.
* Holds a Post-Doctorate Diploma in Communications for Regional Development (Brazil). Director of the Latin American Observatory for Digital Content Industries (OLAICD). His most recent publication is Digital Television and Digital Convergence, NY: Hampton, 2014.
 This resource allows public television (federal, provincial, legislative, judicial, university and community) to create up to four new interactive channels from the original analog channel. University and community channels operate at municipal level.
 Including the National Forum for the Democratization of Communications (FNDC) and Barão de Itararé.