Digital TV has radio to thank for the multichannel revolution

Will we, in 25 years time, look back on October 1 1998 in the same way we’re looking back this week at October 8 1973? (Assuming you are commemorating the birth of commercial radio.)

Will digital television’s quarter-century be marked with parties, press packs and 25-year-old photographs of people in embarrassing hairstyles or short trousers?

Will Elisabeth Murdoch fly to London to commemorate the day she and her father strode across the wasteland of Battersea Power

Station, tracked by spotlights in front of 5,000 guests, to enter the Skydigital pleasure dome and inaugurate the new era of choice TV fans had been crying out for?

Or will we still be waiting for the Government to give the final deadline for the switch-off of the old analogue signals that proved so enduringly endearing to British viewers?

The past two weeks have been strangely surreal for those of us who have been trying to mark the dawn of the digital age. There has been a fusillade of false starts – Sky’s oh-so-soft summer launch and ONdigital’s bungee jump to announce its new name. Then there were the BBC’s “first public screenings” of digital widescreen World Cup matches, followed by its public information campaign, its presentation to “opinion-formers” and its launch of BBC Choice. And there was still a further diaryful of events to come, all building up to the Battersea bunfight on the evening of October 1.

Except that by this time, Skydigital had already been broadcasting for 21 hours, as those of us who had crammed into Dixons in Oxford Street at midnight the night before could testify. We had witnessed the countdown, drunk the champagne, wolfed the canapés, been given the demonstration, watched Vinnie Jones shake hands with the first person to buy a Sky digibox (a part-time Dixons employee as it turned out). We had interviewed the drunks and the anoraks, and we had staggered out into the night secure in the knowledge that we had been there when a little bit of history had been made.

And then we had to make our way to Battersea the following evening to mark the occasion all over again.

“Where were you, Daddy, when the digital revolution broke out?”

“Well, son, I was in the Trocadero in June watching the BBC’s widescreen World Cup pictures, and I was in Redhill when Philips unveiled the first integrated digital TV set, and in Dixons when ONdigital launched its new name, and the LWT studios when it announced its on-air date and channel line-up, and I was at Live ’98 at Earls Court when ONdigital showed its first public test transmissions, and I was at The Collection in South Kensington when Alan Yentob counted down to the launch of BBC Choice, and I was at Dixons again and Battersea Power Station for the launch of Skydigital…”

At least with the launch of commercial radio there was no doubt about when it started – 6am on October 8 1973. The first voice was that of LBC Radio’s David Jessell. And what were the first words?

“It’s six o’clock on October 8 1973.” At least, that’s what the press release from GWR claims. I actually heard those first words, as an eager young media hack, then working for Campaign.

Commercial radio quickly got into trouble. Listeners and advertisers soon reached the conclusion that they could live without LBC and Capital, the first two stations, and by Christmas, heads were rolling at LBC. Both stations rapidly needed extra finance – and it took the Hogmanay launch of Glasgow’s Radio Clyde to show that local commercial radio might have a future.

As so often happens in such circumstances, we messengers on the trade press got the blame. So much so, that when I began broadcasting for LBC ten years later, I discovered that some executives on the station still held me personally responsible for the station’s troubled start.

Yet in many ways commercial radio paved the way for the multichannel revolution in television. It is hard to recall now just how limited was the choice in broadcasting in those days. Twenty-five years ago, there were three TV channels (two BBC, one commercial), four national radio stations and a handful of local ones (all BBC), plus Radio Luxembourg. There was no TV at breakfast time and no radio through the night.

Inspired by the pirates, commercial radio gradually brought to Britain dozens of highly-targeted stations – news, pop music and local information – that could only be replicated in television when cable and satellite got around the problem of the scarcity of frequencies.

It was five years ago, on September 1 1993 – just pipping the 20th anniversary of commercial radio – that Sky launched its multichannels package, offering subscribers twenty targeted services with an all-singing, all-dancing presentation at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre.

Now digital TV is promising 200 channels. Commercial radio already has that many – and though they are mostly local, they still compete for the attention of the same 55 million people. And indeed the average person now spends more time listening to commercial radio – 15 hours a week – than watching commercial TV (14 hours a week).

What will people be commemorating in October 2023? 25 years of digital TV, or commercial radio’s 50th birthday?

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