Dr Riyadh Najm.
“In the future, it will be ready to adapt to 1080p. It’s a matter of when 1080p becomes the de facto standard in terms of not having so much difference in price. There is still a difference in price compared to 720p, which is the standard that we have adopted,” Dr Najm explains.
Stereoscopic 3D is unlikely to be a driver of future 1080p and 3G adoption. Even when it comes to sport, one of the prime candidates for stereoscopic 3D, Dr Najm says Saudi TV’s immediate priority is to convert its sports channel to HD.
On the business side of its operations, Saudi TV is trying to take steps towards what it terms ‘corporatisation’. This does not mean a selloff, third party investment, downsizing or the imposition of strict profit and loss targets, but a change in the way things are done at the organisation.
“What we are involved in now is trying to change, or transform, a government body, which is radio and television as part of a ministry, to become a corporation,” explains Dr Najm.
“[It is] still owned by the ministry, but [is] driven and operated on a corporatised basis, meaning it has its own separate organisational structure and its own bylaws – whether for HR or for administration & finance – separate from other government bodies. Then, it becomes more competitive and able to operate in a way that is more productive.
“Part of the idea is that you have the flexibility on hiring and firing based on merit. Of course, it will remain a big organisation and we will have to respect general rules on hiring and firing.”
The migration to HD and the planned corporatisation of Saudi TV both support the Ministry’s effort to roll out digital terrestrial TV in the Kingdom. If the Ministry’s plans come to fruition, digital terrestrial TV could, at some point in the next few years, constitute a viable, free-to-air alternative to satellite in KSA.
Dr Najm agrees that comparisons to the UK’s Freeview are not wide of the mark. Freeview is a digital terrestrial service that offers around 50 channels from a combination of public service broadcasters, free-to-air commercial operators and satellite operators such as Sky. Viewers need to buy a set-top box for around US $50 to get up and running, but then receive the 50 channels for free.
Right now, KSA’s digital terrestrial service carries Saudi TV’s nine radio and TV channels, plus one interactive data service. More content needs be added, which will require the passing of legislation specifying terms and conditions of carriage.
“What will be available are some selected, socially acceptable channels from the region and maybe some foreign programmes,” Dr Najm explains. “In order to do this, we will need to have [in place] what we call the Broadcast Act, which is now under evaluation by the government, which will outline how we will allow private channels to be broadcast locally and terrestrially.”
Could the digital terrestrial initiative be seen as a move against satellite operators, whose content has sometimes offended regional audiences? Dr Najm replies: “The majority of people want programmes that are socially acceptable, that are good for the family and provide reasonable entertainment. Then, you don’t need to go to satellite, you just go to digital terrestrial.”
The infrastructure to offer digital terrestrial TV is pretty much in place, with most of the country now being covered. Now, the content just needs to be added, with Dr Najm saying around 30 channels would be the ideal figure.
Alongside its infrastructure upgrades, corporatisation and the terrestrial TV rollout, Saudi TV has made significant progress on a massive archiving and content restoration project. Dr Najm believes the project is probably one of the largest of its type ever undertaken, with around 270,000 TV tapes in different formats and 500,000 audio tapes involved. Most of the TV work has now been done and around 65% of the radio content.
A decision has been made to transport acquisition and ingest equipment to the remaining content in Jeddah, rather than transport tapes physically to Riyadh and risk damaging them.
Two copies of each piece of material are being made, with metadata and low resolution browser versions being attached to each one. One quirky fact is that some of the material had to be baked in an oven in order for the restoration artists to be able to play it back.
Within the next two years, Saudi TV plans to create a private network, linking all its production centres with the content archive. A future possibility is putting some of the archive material online for public access “It’s one of the projects that we are very proud of and hopefully when it is finished, it will be a good model for others to follow,” says Dr Najm.
Through a combination of technical upgrades and organisational reform, the Ministry of Culture & Information is spearheading wholesale change in the Kingdom’s television landscape. Don’t be surprised if it one day emerges as a competitor to satellite TV in the country.
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