Overpowered by Sky Digital’s ‘complete empowerment’ offer

Decisions, decisions. Digital TV is upon us and already I have more choice than I can handle. I cannot yet receive it, of course, any more than anyone else outside a handful of broadcasting establishments, research labs and retailers’ head offices.

To see a real digital picture, the average viewer must wait for the October 1 Sky Digital launch, the day when Dixons and the rest will finally put their receiving equipment on sale. Even then, it’s not yet clear how quickly those who want to buy it will be able to turn on and tune in.

As a long-standing Sky analogue customer, I’ve just received the shiny silver mailshot containing my long-awaited bargain offer – 40 off a state-of-the-art digital satellite system (usual price 199.99), plus free installation worth 99.99.

About time too, you may say. Those of us who rang the Sky digital hotline in the summer, to register our interest, were beginning to think we would never hear back. I know of one man in Cheshire who reported Sky to local trading standards officers, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Independent Television Commission because, by the start of last week, he had still heard no news.

How, he asked, was Sky going to meet its advertised start-date if it hadn’t yet made contact with its own self-selected early-adopters? The answer is that, strictly speaking, it won’t. My “Welcome to Digital Television” letter from BSkyB chief executive Mark Booth, dated September 14, says Sky plans to start installing new digital satellite systems in early October. He invited me, as an existing subscriber, to book my installation now.

It so happened, before I had a chance to reply, I found myself sitting next to Mr Booth at last week’s Broadcasting Press Guild lunch, where he was guest speaker. He was pleased to hear I had received my advance Information Pack (other hacks at the lunch hadn’t), pointing out they couldn’t respond to everyone at once.

He told us 650,000 Sky customers have registered an interest in Sky Digital. And since Sky expects to have installed 200,000 receivers by Christmas, not everyone is going to be lucky.

The question taxing me, and presumably several hundred thousand other people, is whether I want to be one of the first. Because the more I start reading the information pack, the more complicated the decision becomes.

This is the bottom line: what is Sky Digital offering, on top of what I already get through Sky Analogue, that will persuade me to shell out – even on the bargain offer basis – 185 for new equipment? (Yes, 185. It turns out there’s a digital connection fee of 25 if I subscribe to the SkyDigital channels.) For non-subscribers, of course, the equipment cost, including installation, is 330.

Booth tells me I’ll be getting “complete empowerment” as a viewer, but I’m not sure I can handle that. So, what else?

Well, there are the new BBC channels which, as a loyal employee, I am naturally keen to have. I’m not sure what widescreen BBC1 and 2 will look like on my narrowscreen set, but BBC Choice and News 24 are undoubtedly extras. There will also be the UK-TV channels (largely based on the BBC archives), Channel 4 and 5 in digital format (but how will I tell, in narrowscreen?), but not ITV (because that’s exclusive to ONdigital), though I’ll still be able to receive that in analogue.

Do I really want 11 movie channels offering up to 25 movies every night – plus Sky Box Office showing up to 15 films starting every 15 minutes? Or five sports channels and ten documentary channels? I know I don’t have to take them all. It’s just that because I take Sky’s sport and movies package (for 29.99 a month), I’m being offered everything on digital, for the same subscription. That may sound a bargain, but we think we spend too much time watching TV as it is. Maybe we ought to trade down a bit?

And that’s where it gets really complicated. Thanks to “unbundling”, there are 96 different package options, starting with the 6.99 a month value pack, through to the 8.99 “special interest packages” offering 20 channels each (such as “knowledge pack” and “kids and music pack”), and the 11.99 Sky Family Pack with 40 channels, plus the various movie and sports channels.

And then there’s the problem of my existing satellite equipment. A worrying box in the SkyDigital Subscription Contract reads: “Your current Sky subscription will continue to be charged as normal in addition to your Digital subscription unless you tick the box below.”

I certainly don’t want two subscriptions, although some might. Yet if I take that option, another clause points out: “A separate installation charge will be payable if you wish to continue using your existing satellite equipment”. Bye bye free installation.

And what happens to my existing dish and box? Another clause is offering “neat removal and disposal of your old dish and decoder at your request”. But mine are still quite new – can I let my brother-in-law have them without forfeiting the special offer?

Then there’s the disruption – taking down the old dish, putting up the new one, repainting around it, tuning in the decoder (the box wasn’t pretuned, despite all claims). Inertia is a strong force in our house.

On the other hand, the new dish is half the size of the old one – and Sky’s promising better quality pictures and sound, and the electronic programme guide, and of course those interactive services to come…

Decisions, decisions. I don’t think I’m ready for all that empowerment – but I’m rather afraid my kids might be.

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