Why more free-to-air channels could speed up digital switch

Viewers, not TV companies or government, will determine the analogue switch-off date. Digital TV must offer more choice, says Torin Douglas

Hands up all those who think – like the culture secretary Chris Smith – that analogue television could be switched off by the year 2010?

On the face of it, the forecast seems reasonable. If 2 million homes have signed up for digital TV in less than a year, surely the bulk of the population will have switched over in ten years’ time – making it politically acceptable to turn off the current TV system?

But put the question another way. Hands up those who think that 95 per cent of households will be receiving digital TV by 2010? That figure seems dauntingly high – yet Smith has said the Government will not switch off the analogue signals until that point has been reached.

So why were digital companies so enthusiastic about the culture secretary’s long-awaited pronouncement on the analogue switch-off? ONdigital and Granada described the statement as “wonderful news”. Carlton said: “the future of television is digital – official!” Sky, Dixons, ITV and the BBC all responded with varying degrees of welcome.

Smith’s speech was a masterpiece of political tightrope-walking. On the one hand he had to give a clear signal to the industry and viewers that the Government genuinely believed in the benefits of switching over from analogue to digital as quickly as possible. On the other, he had to reassure viewers – and consumer groups – that he wasn’t going to make their TV sets obsolete overnight.

“The attitude of ‘don’t mess with my telly’ is a powerful one,” says Professor Robert Worcester of the pollsters MORI. “An awful lot of people are dependent on their TV, particularly the disadvantaged, people who are living at home alone and the elderly. The idea that they might have to go out and buy a new TV, or get an adapter of some sort, when they are perfectly satisfied now, is going to be anathema to them. And who are they going to blame? I suspect it will be the Government in power at the time.”

Little wonder that Smith had the electorate firmly on his mind when he delivered his speech to the Royal Television Society. He raised the biggest laugh of the day during questions afterwards, when he accidentally referred to viewers as voters. But he left no one in any doubt that it was viewers and consumers that would take priority when deciding the timetable for the analogue switch-off. Before he began his speech, Age Concern was expressing fears that pensioners might be forced to buy new sets they couldn’t afford. By the end of it, they and the National Consumers Council were welcoming the minister’s announcement as warmly as the digital operators.

Unfortunately, both groups cannot be right, can they? If the Government is not going to turn off the signals until 95 per cent of homes have the new equipment, why should viewers rush to get digital receivers? As Sir John Birt pointed out, as diplomatically as he could, “achieving 95 per cent take-up within ten years is a substantial challenge for the industry”. Dawn Airey, the programme director of Channel 5, was far less diplomatic, rubbishing any chance of the target being met. And with some justification – it took colour television 20 years to reach 90 per cent of the population.

An equally worrying statistic for the switch-off brigade emerged from a survey published last week by the BBC. It shows that 45 per cent of viewers currently have no interest in getting any pay-TV services – bearing out the experience of the past ten years, during which the penetration of multichannel television has plateaued at a little over a third of UK homes.

The BBC argues that if digital is to attract the rest of the population – as Smith says it must, before analogue is switched off – it can do so only by offering a wider choice of free-to-air, public-service channels. Its latest ambition is to launch a digital channel for children, funded out of the licence fee and free from advertising. It says that with so many children now glued to the 24-hour kids’ channels, its audience will wither unless it offers its programmes in a similar format. BBC director of programmes Alan Yentob said that without British programmes such as Newsround, the Teletubbies and the Narnia books, “the PlayStation generation will grow up on a diet of cartoons from America and Japan”.

The idea is opposed, naturally, by Nickelodeon, Fox Kids and the other commercial children’s channels. They say a free service would unfairly lure away their viewers and their contracts with cable companies, and claim the BBC is already stretching the licence fee too thinly.

But there is another hurdle preventing digital TV from reaching that “95 per cent” target – consumer confusion. The harder SkyDigital and ONdigital compete with each other to provide exclusive programming – be it the UEFA Champions League or the Ryder Cup – the more doubts assail potential subscribers.

Will they need two boxes and two separate subscriptions to get the sports they want? Will they be left with digital TV’s equivalent of the Betamax or squarial? And, not least, when will they get ITV and ITV2 on SkyDigital?

Sky’s chief executive Tony Ball took comfort from Smith’s insistence that all the terrestrial channels must be available on all digital platforms before analogue is switched off. But he couldn’t persuade the minister to say how soon ITV should foresake its allegiance to ONdigital.

Research from Carat UK, unveiled at the RTS convention, suggests ITV might be wise to move sooner rather than later. A telephone survey of 500 digital customers showed that just 71 per cent claimed to have watched ITV the previous week – and in SkyDigital homes the figure was only 66 per cent. ITV dismissed the research as unreliable, saying it was based on people’s ability to remember what they had watched during one week’s viewing in August. But we won’t have long to wait for the official figures. BARB’s first report on digital viewing is due out on October 4.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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