Endless possibilities ... online television is rapidly expanding.

Endless possibilities ... online television is rapidly expanding. Photo: Rob Homer

Almost half of Australia's online adult population now watches professionally produced video content online, prompting the free-to-air TV networks to discuss building a joint online streaming service.

A new report from the communications regulator found that 5.2 million Australians looked at professional online video content in the six months to June and of those, 61 per cent watched TV programs while 35 per cent watched films.

On a Google hangout hosted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the general manager of industry body Freeview Australia, Liz Ross, said the industry was in “serious discussions” regarding a new “aggregated platform”.

“We do as a platform all agree that an aggregated service is the one appropriate solution in the long run for all Australian consumers because it does deliver that opportunity for people to get all the very best content they currently view on [free-to-air] TV ... in one place,” she said.

“Our belief is that consumers will expect television anywhere, any time and on any device.”

Ross said products that have been released in Britain that allow viewers to access “past, present and future” free-to-air content were “a good example of the sorts of things that we're considering”.

Former Telstra Bigpond boss Justin Milne, who is now deputy chairman of Quickflix, said that in three to five years “the majority of video that Australians watch will be video on demand and it will come from a variety of different devices”.

“Huge amounts of it will be via tablets ... I think tablets are a really important device.”

ACMA said 26 per cent of Australian adult internet users accessed content via three or more devices.

Louise McElvogue, a partner of Macleod Media and a member of the government's Convergence Review Committee, said old-world content rights deals were what was holding the industry back.

“Once we start to see a loosening up of those output deals and the content becoming more available we'll see a bit of a shift from traditional broadcasters holding all those rights and letting them out online when they want to, to perhaps some of those distributors taking them direct to consumers,” she said.

In the meantime, McElvogue said, “not many people are using online through legal methods for a lot of their viewing”, giving the example of Game of Thrones, which is difficult for Australians to obtain legally in a timely fashion.

There have been persistent rumours about US free online TV service Hulu launching in Australia, but it appears the free-to-air networks want to avoid overseas technology companies eating their lunch.

Right now each network releases online video separately through its own website and ACMA's research shows that more than 1.5 million Australian adult internet users (or 11 per cent of the total) accessed these catch-up TV services in June this year - up from 8 per cent in June 2011.

According to ACMA, the ABC and SBS are the leading free-to-air players in online catch-up TV, used by 553,000 and 216,000 unique users respectively, followed by Seven (211,000), Ten (205,000) and Nine (27,000).

ABC controller for multi-platform production Arul Baskaran said that for many, iView was the primary method of accessing ABC content, and use of the service on tablets and connected devices now outstripped the website.

“I think what we're seeing is that really anything that can be a TV is turning into a TV, so all those screens are capable of streaming content now and we're really seeing tablets emerging as that entertainment computer of choice,” Baskaran said.

He said the ABC was looking at taking advantage of the trend for consumers to use their smartphones and tablets to browse while watching TV.

“Instead of sending you to the website we can bring the website to you on your smartphone or your tablet in the context in which you're actually engaging with that program,” he said.

ACMA distinguishes free catch-up TV services from IPTV subscription and pay-per-view services such as Foxtel, Fetch TV (offered via ISPs including Optus, iiNet and Internode), Quickflix, Google TV and Apple TV.

The report found that usage of IPTV services was still low, at 5 per cent of households, but this was expected to grow as more content was made available. It found that 2.8 million Australians indicated they were prepared to pay for online video content in the next six months.

From the June quarter of 2010 to the June quarter of 2012, the average volume of data downloaded per internet subscriber in Australia increased by 114 per cent, ACMA said.

The national broadband network was expected to provide “significant stimuli” to the take up of online video, while the development of new technology would soon allow consumers to access online video content services at the “touch of a button”.