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Viewers in the driver's seat for TV revolution

The launch of digital television means far more than extra channels

Six decades after the 1955 debut of black-and-white TV, Thailand reached another milestone yesterday with the "soft launch" of digital TV. The move is among changes in the broadcasting industry heralding major opportunities for both companies and consumers.

Most obvious to viewers is the sudden addition of 24 free digital channels. But, behind the scenes, the road from analogue to digital has been a long and rocky one. We all have the 1997 Constitution to thank for the boost in viewing choices.

The 1997 charter targeted more freedom in broadcasting and paved the way for the National Broadcasting Commission, charged with licensing digital TV.

More significant than the wider variety of programmes is the greater freedom the move to digital affords. Its arrival marks an end to the government and military control that has spanned the last six decades. The influx of new channels will drown out the government mouthpieces of state- and military-owned channels. Gone are the days when a broadcaster's survival depended on the authorities. Now the viewers will judge a channel's merits on the basis of whether tune in a second time.

Content creators will also enjoy greater freedom. Producers will find that poor viewing fare is no longer tolerated. The influx of digital channels will force them to come up with more ideas and better-quality content. Broadcasters will be driven not just by competition from their counterparts but also from online entertainment portals like YouTube. In order to stay afloat, they will need to generate good audience ratings.

Advertisers will be offered more variety to air their commercials. Channels 3 and 7 currently attract 70 per cent of TV advertising revenue, worth Bt70 billion a year. That will certainly change. The digital platform is a whole new game, with everyone starting at Square 1. Whether established giants or broadcasting newcomers, each stands an equal chance of succeeding or failing.

The flourishing of new channels will create job opportunities. This is perhaps a good time to be in the media industry with broadcasters looking for creative talent. And those opportunities will trickle down to advertising agencies and production houses, offering employment for everyone from tea boys to celebrity hosts.

Viewers, meanwhile, can just sit back and enjoy the show. We are now the judges and our verdicts will be delivered via the remote control.

It is too soon to predict the winners in this new game or whether the established broadcasting giants will maintain their grip on the industry. What is certain is that the immense opportunities bring bigger competition and bigger risk. Not every broadcaster will be a winner, but the best part of the game is that everyone starts on an equal footing.

And this will be no 100-metre dash. Digital TV's trial run is just the first step in a marathon. Although the finishing line is nowhere in sight, all participants will be healthier by the end of the race. And whoever wins, nothing can stop viewers from reaping the benefits.


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