Hesitation proves unwarranted on the road to TV’s final frontier

My Sky digibox has finally arrived. I say “finally” but in some ways it got here sooner than I’d hoped. Regular readers may recall that in September I was dithering over whether to respond to the shiny silver mailshot from Sky Digital and become an “early adopter”.

As a Sky analogue subscriber, should I take advantage of the “40-off” deal for dish and decoder box, plus free installation? Did I really want 11 movie channels, plus Sky Box Office, plus ten documentary channels and an Electronic Programme Guide? Weren’t my existing 50 or so channels enough? Could I face the disruption of having the old dish taken down, and the risk of a new set-top box that might not work? Could I face filling in all those forms and battling with the new equipment?

Well, on your behalf, dear reader, I decided to go for it. My household has been a test-bed for multichannel TV since before the days of BSB. How could we refuse at the final fence – the final frontier that will lead to unlimited digital choice? I filled in the forms and waited.

Nothing happened.

October 1 dawned, and even before dawn – at midnight to be precise – I took my place in Dixons in Oxford Street to observe the countdown for the first digiboxes going on sale. I witnessed the first couple of purchases (by a Dixons employee and the head of the new digital channel BBC Choice) but resisted the temptation to pre-empt the system and buy a box over the counter.

I had sent my forms to Sky’s subscriber management centre in Livingston and they would not let me down. Would they? For the next few weeks I heard nothing, but by now I was in no rush. Having missed the launch itself, there was no urgency – and the tales I was hearing from colleagues suggested it might be better to wait. There were reports of technical problems with the digiboxes, of Sky installers arriving but not the decoder cards that make the boxes work, or long delays on the phone to Livingston.

Equally worrying, some of the services I currently received on Sky would not be available on Sky Digital, even when it was working properly. No CNN or Cartoon Network (would the seven-year-old leave home, or could she survive on a diet of Nickelodeon, Fox Kids, Disney and the terrestrial kids’ programmes?). No BBC radio, no teletext and no VideoPlus either. Were the new channels, BBC Choice and News 24, UK Arena and UK Style, Animal Planet and M2, worth the trade-off?

I decided to hang on, save my 200 for the time being, and wait till Sky got round to contacting me… probably some time in 1999.

And then I got my Barclaycard bill. Dated November 9, and opened on November 13, it told me that on October 10 Sky Digital had charged me 199.98. I looked up the installation contract. Sure enough, that was the sum I had agreed to pay, for a digital satellite system plus “tvLINK” (which lets you watch the satellite programmes on a second set), and I had opted to pay by Barclaycard.

What I hadn’t presumed was that Sky would take the payment straight away without bothering to deliver the goods, or even to let me know. I rang the customer service centre.

It didn’t take as long to get through as I had feared. I listened to the recorded “Welcome and thank you for calling Sky Digital” message, pressed the star key twice, pressed 1 “for existing Sky subscriber” and then pondered a choice of five further choices, none of them precisely relevant (where was “Press 8 if we have taken the money for your digibox but not contacted you” option?). Improbably, within two minutes, I was talking to a human being.

I explained my problem and she quickly got the measure of it (presumably I wasn’t the first). She passed it to her superior – and soon Sky was redeeming itself.

By the end of the day, I’d been given a date – December 1 – though no clue as to a likely time, so I arranged to work at home that day. The viewing card arrived promptly in the post. On the day itself, the installer rang at 9am to say he’d be round between 1pm and 3pm – and he arrived at 2pm. Within half an hour, the new dish was up and the old one removed. The box was working shortly afterwards.

I’m still awaiting the second remote control handset, which wasn’t supplied with the tvLINK kit (the installer said it would be sent to me). And there are times when the digibox doesn’t seem to respond as it’s meant to (the back-up button doesn’t switch back to the previous channel and the text button doesn’t function). I’m still not clear if these are general problems, or my own.

But the picture quality is excellent, the new channels are already finding favour (M2, MTV’s sister channel, is already notching up the hours) and the EPG is genuinely well designed and easy to use. Before, we used to ignore two-thirds of the channels because it was too hard to find out what was on (and when). Now, the TV guide lets us see not only what is on each channel (albeit very briefly), but what’s coming up next – a facility that quickly becomes habit-forming.

For those of us already used to multichannel TV, it isn’t earth-shattering. I could happily have done without it. But already the potential of digital TV is becoming apparent – and if I can get back the facilities and channels I have lost it will definitely be progress.

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