Free spirit that could help us to make digital switch

Newspaper give-aways could emerge as the panacea that the Government needs to achieve its goal of analogue switchover by 2010

What do you do with the torrent of CDs and DVDs that tumble out of your newspapers these days? Not the AOL ones – I presume you throw those away. And not the Sunday Times’ monthly DVD, The Month, a superior editorial offering which you probably keep but, if you’re like me, never actually get round to putting in the computer.

No, I’m thinking of the film DVDs, such as Cabaret, Brief Encounter and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or the compilation CDs with titles such as Disco Greats or West End Hits or Hot Valentine – or, courtesy of last Saturday’s Daily Mirror, Beautiful Day.

This forced its way into my consciousness because the powers-that-be at the Mirror (whether Piers Morgan or Sly Bailey or someone less exalted) decided it was such a terrific free offer it warranted no less than two-thirds of the front page. A huge colour picture of the CD was accompanied by the come-on “Free CD inside – great music… no tokens… no hassle”.

And what “great music” was on this CD? Some very old tracks by Joe Cocker, Dusty Springfield, Rod Stewart and Tears for Fears. You might think this was a bit of a comedown for the paper that won this year’s Scoop of the Year trophy at the British Press Awards, with its Palace security exposé. The Mirror had a respectable splash on Saturday – “£14m Lotto not claimed”, revealing that last week’s double rollover was still unclaimed. But that took up less than a third of the page, at the bottom.

The fact the paper devoted so much space to the promotion suggests it believes such freebies – however old the songs – have real selling power.

The same morning, the Daily Mail devoted almost half of its front page to another entertainment freebie. Alongside a colour picture of The Simpsons it proclaimed “Free Sky TV for every reader… free standard installation… free mini-dish… free Sky digi-box… free first month’s viewing.”

This was not a “no tokens… no hassle” offer, as the Mirror put it. Even Associated Newspapers, which has no compunction about burdening paper boys with giant retail catalogues, draws the line at inserting a shrink-wrapped mini-dish and digi-box with every copy. But readers have only to collect seven tokens, which doesn’t sound much hassle to me, for free access to the digital revolution.

It’s intriguing that the offer is in the Mail, which under its late, great editor Sir David English was as anti-Sky as any newspaper could be, attacking the Murdoch-backed venture at every turn. English and his proprietor, the late Lord Rothermere, had been desperate to get into television but backed the wrong horse, British Satellite Broadcasting. Under editor Paul Dacre and the current Lord Rothermere, hostilities have finally ceased.

But there is a greater significance to the Mirror and Mail’s Saturday offers. Free offers like these could ultimately rescue the Government and Ofcom, as they try to devise a strategy to persuade the nation to switch over from analogue to digital transmission.

Digital television is a “glass half-full” conundrum. The fact that half the nation now has digital TV, via satellite, cable or Freeview, is a remarkable achievement. It’s been hailed as the fastest-growing consumer technology, establishing Britain as a world leader. Yet the digital glass is also half-empty – indeed more than half empty, because most homes that have digital TV can receive it only on their main set. That leaves all the secondary sets in kitchens and bedrooms to be converted too.

According to Ofcom, as many as 35 million TVs could still be analogue-only in 2010, which remains the Government’s target date for switchover. That’s a huge figure, yet in my view, Ofcom downplays this problem in its report on Digital Switchover, published earlier this month. Ed Richards – its policy supremo on the issue – denies this, pointing out that the cost of a receiver has already fallen to £45 in some shops, where a few years ago no one could even make them for under £150. The report forecasts that by 2010 the cost could come down to £30.

But we’re talking about 35 million times £30. Unless people are prepared to throw away millions of TVs, it will cost British viewers at least £1bn to convert all their existing sets. Ofcom puts the total net benefit to the British economy at just £2bn!

However, let’s look on the bright side. The Mail is already giving away free Sky systems. And the newspapers’ free CD and DVD bonanza shows just how far and fast the cost of technology can fall. The idea that a newspaper could give away a complete feature film with every copy, in a form readers could readily view, would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

With another technological breakthrough and large economies of scale, the cost and size of a basic Freeview receiver could come down a great deal further. At that stage, the idea of getting one for every set in the house – to keep it working – wouldn’t seem far-fetched.

And newspapers, as we can now see, would be queuing up to give away “free TV” to their readers.Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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