It's another year and another technology paradigm shift - or is it? This should be the year of digital television, of high definition, unlimited broadband connectivity, increased infrastructure to cater for the FIFA Soccer World Cup and studios capable of attracting top international productions but the question remains will it be?

Stark Studios in Fontainbleau
Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) was scheduled to be ready in the second half of 2009 after a suitable commissioning period, but the SABC has been cagey as to the current status, placing a question mark over the switch from analogue to digital. Of course, sources at the SABC claim that DTT is on track and still a priority despite the recent problems surrounding the public broadcaster

"We were hopeful that the DTT service could be launched publicly by the middle of 2009," says a SABC spokesperson, "but this was always subject to a range of matters being concluded by the regulator, the broadcasters and the Department of Communications. Initial research had been conducted on a range of areas including installations, quality of signal, and new channel availability."

This said, we may look forward to the launch in the 2nd quarter of 2010 and hopefully before the World Cup. However, in his budget speech a few months ago Minister of Communications, Siphiwe Nyanda, said he was aware of the challenges of meeting some of the DTT targets, due in part to the funding concerns and the economic downturn, so nothing is certain at this stage

By comparison, HDTV has made giant strides. M-Net is now broadcasting three channels of HD and it is understood that sales of HD decoders and PVRs is at a high level. The quality improvement is significant and is bound to attract the couch potatoes, but bandwidth and equipment to provide this type of quality come at a price. Sport has been a great catalyst for the fast track to HDTV, and indeed virtually all the matches for the World Cup will be shot in high definition. This may prompt M-Net to offer more HDTV sports channels but this remains to be seen.

"2010 will probably be a highlight year in the history of South Africa - for the first time not driven by politics but a world class delivery and hosting of the FIFA Soccer World Cup," says Dave Hagen, M-Net Technical director DTTV.

HD PVR Decoder
"From a broadcast regulatory aspect, 2010 will bring the final (second final!) Digital Terrestrial TV regulations (due in January), mobile TV ITA & regulations and, most probably, the licensing of WIMAX broadband operators," says Hagen, adding that: "This will add 3 major new technology platforms in South Africa. Yes, HD is here in SA and take-up and viewer acceptance is fantastic - 1080P 'full HD' is a very long way off for broadcasters and signal distributors but will make inroads in top end production setups.

"DTTV has now an approved SANS 862 free to air decoder specification and a migration frequency plan. We await the DTTV regulations, and further work needs to take place to conclude the DTTV Rules of Operation, MHEG 5 terms of reference and broadcaster/signal distributor memorandum of understanding. We are almost ready to go."

In the production and post production industry, high definition is now almost the standard. Even though the majority of this material will be shown in standard definition - in South Africa at any rate - it does ensure that the shot material will remain future proof, and as and when high definition comes on line, via the broadcasters, the viewer will benefit from the additional quality. Interestingly, the cost of shooting and post producing in HD is not too un-similar to doing it in SD, so why not take advantage of the new technology?

"Almost all our existing fleet of transportable Earth Stations will be upgraded for HD and we will be offering fully redundant HD services (Switchable to Standard Definition) for many of the international broadcasters during the World Cup," says Telemedia's Peter Bretherick.

"2009 was our best year yet and we have built two new satellite trucks and established facilities specifically for the World Cup in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Over and above our normal preparations for the World Cup, we were fortunate to secure a large order for the military and the police for Helicopter Surveillance equipment, again for the World Cup, which resulted in us recruiting four new engineers to complete this project," explains Bretherick.

He continues: "The World Cup will of course provide us with significant work load during the 41 days in June and July and we have already taken steps to advise our engineers that no leave will be granted during this period. We have only just placed sizeable orders with Tandberg Television for new compression equipment for high definition for the World Cup in excess of 400 000 pounds, with some of this equipment earmarked for sales and some for rental during the World Cup period."

2010 will also see the launch of the Cape Town Film Studios. This much awaited international film studio complex is due to open shortly. "The first two stages (stage one and three), including the support buildings and production offices will be ready by May 1," says Chief Executive Officer, Nico Dekker. "The two major workshops with additional art department, mini workshops, props and storage spaces and additional office space are set to be ready on 1 August and the final two stages with their support buildings will be ready in September. The first phase will be fully operational by 1 October 2010 and in summary, this will entail 17000m2 of sound stages, production offices, star rooms, AD offices, make up, wardrobe spaces, green rooms, workshops with at least 48 workstations."

Gauteng also has new studios, which opened their doors on 4 January 2010. Independent production company Stark Films has built a magnificent two studio complex in Fontainbleau north of Johannesburg. The 750m2 and 500m2 studios are being used to record popular daily drama Binnelanders. It is unlikely that any further development of studios will occur in 2010, despite the need in Gauteng for a large stage capable of shooting feature films to international standards.

As far as post production goes 2010 looks like a mixed blessing. Generally the feeling is that it will be an improvement over 2009, however there are misgivings around the World Cup, with the concern of how traditional businesses will be impacted as it will be very difficult for productions to take place during that period. The sports broadcasting industry tends to be very self sufficient with huge amounts of technology and skills travelling from event to event.

"We are hoping to provide services to broadcasters that don't have all their own infrastructure," says well known post production guru Mike Smit. "It is very difficult to predict what this year will look like because we are very dependent on the economy of the markets in which we operate, that is will advertisers who continue to advertise on television still shoot in the Western Cape and will there be funding for feature films? The Western Cape remains a competitive destination internationally and the industry as a whole has to do their bit to maintain their position. There does seem to be a fair amount of bullish sentiment about feature film production this year."

This sentiment also applies to post production in Gauteng where, in spite of a poor 2009, sales of equipment seem to be more positive in 2010. "2009 was a tough year for the production industry especially in light of the financial turmoil at SABC resulting in a slow down of investment in new equipment," says Sony Broadcast MD, Jess Goedhals. "However, Sony delivered three of the four HD OB vans in 2009, with the last one due in January 2010. We expect sales to be good up until June 2010 after which we hope to maintain our market share."

Sony Broadcast will be supporting all the local and visiting journalists when it comes to service and repair of their Sony cameras and equipment for the World Cup. Special training courses are being undertaken, using Sony's network of qualified local service centres and these will be available during the World Cup. Special arrangements are also being made to have spares parts easily available.

"The World Cup has already benefited Sony with the four HD OB vans for SABC and the large LED screens that have been installed in three of the stadiums," continues Goedhals. "We also delivered a significant number of LCD screens for the hospitality areas in a number of the stadiums. I believe South Africa will be ready for the event - Sony is even collaborating with FIFA and ESPN to generate some of the matches live in 3D to selected venues in other part of the world!"

All in all, it's clear that this year will be a significant one, a year in which, in general, the industry will benefit from new trends and developing technology.