The end is in sight for television as we know it

Digital TV will usher in the end of television as we know it. There’s a deadline and the clock is ticking.

Digital TV will be similar to analogue satellite/cable, but with the capacity for more channels and for interactive services, electronic programme guides and better audio-visual quality.

Within a year, we’ll be able to get digital TV from three different “platform providers”: satellite (Sky Digital), digital terrestrial (ONdigital) and cable (several providers). They will arrive in the home through a new, smaller dish, existing TV aerials and cable respectively. Each will require a digital decoder, either as a set-top box or built into the television. All of them will offer free-to-air as well as pay services. Sky and ONdigital launch this autumn.

The Government wants to “switch off” analogue terrestrial transmission altogether by the end of the next decade, so they can sell the frequencies to other users. From that day, TVs without digital capability will go black. Therefore, government-subsidised or not, everyone will have digital TV through one of the three platforms, whether they decide to take the pay services or not. Once we’re on a platform, we’ll probably stay with it and, in the long run, most of us will take pay services. So there’s a race on to capture the most customers.

Sky Digital has announced product, price and packaging details and they are extremely competitive. We must wait to hear from the other platforms, but it’s likely that prices will be comparable to Sky.

Content is king and Sky Digital has secured deals to keep a number of high-quality channels exclusive to digital satellite/cable. This is an important competitive advantage, but – since most of these deals are for between one to two years – only a short-term one.

And while ONdigital will have channels that aren’t available on Sky, caution is needed here. Many will be new, so not tried and tested like the satellite/cable exclusives. Plus they will be starved of subscription revenue and slow to create profits.

On the other hand, the Government appears to support digital terrestrial and Sky has unique problems of its own. By 2003, the older Astra satellites will conk out and the existing satellite platform will start to become obsolete, so Sky will have to persuade its remaining analogue customers to switch over to Sky Digital.

ONdigital is not a BSB re-run. Sky will not kill it. There is too much at stake for the

Government or ONdigital’s shareholders to allow this to happen.

Sky Digital will set the pace. In time, everyone will have digital TV and each platform will have a stake. The more competition the better. Roll on digital cable.

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