Why is everyone talking about anything but digital switchover?

The TV industry is in the middle of its flagship conference season, so you might expect the imminent analogue switch-off to be in the news. Far from it – it hasn’t even made the agenda

It’s the dog that didn’t bark in the night. It’s the elephant in the corner of the room. It’s any other animal metaphor that highlights the significance of an overwhelming silence.

Why is no one talking about digital switchover – or analogue switch-off, as some prefer to call it, free of spin? It’s an issue that should alarm advertisers, when they wake up to the prospect of their audiences being interrupted.

The UK will start turning off viewers’ analogue television signals in three years’ time – with all the disruption, cost and inconvenience that will entail – yet the TV industry seems oblivious to it.

Last week at the Edinburgh Television Festival – the annual talking-shop for big TV issues – it was hardly mentioned at all, and then only in passing, with remarks to the effect that life will be very different “after digital switchover”.

The only reference to how we will actually get to that point was made by BBC director-general Mark Thompson, who was asked what level of licence-fee settlement the BBC would be seeking when discussions get serious this autumn. He said it wasn’t possible to say because, as part of its new Charter deal with the Government, the BBC was being asked to take a leading role in the switchover process and it wasn’t yet clear what the cost would be, in terms of marketing and helping the vulnerable to make the switch.

Next week at the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention, culture secretary Tessa Jowell will address TV and communications bosses including Thompson, Charles Allen of ITV and James Murdoch of Sky. Again, the programme includes no reference to digital switchover.

Yet the commitment to switch the nation’s homes to digital, starting in 2008, was in the Labour election manifesto. It is five months since the industry – at the Government’s request – launched SwitchCo, the organisation that will co-ordinate the switch. And it’s seven months since Ofcom published its own suggested region-by-region timetable.

So why has neither organisation been invited to discuss the issue publicly? Why does no one seem to want to talk about it? Is everyone hoping that it will just go away?

It’s little wonder that a survey by the London Business School shows that 60 per cent of British broadcasting executives do not know the Government’s strategy for switching off the analogue TV signal. And 41 per cent say not enough is being done to educate the industry about the issue. If TV’s two major conferences don’t even put it on the agenda, are we surprised?

In Edinburgh, a senior news and current affairs executive told me he knew nothing about it at all. When I explained that every TV region was going to have its analogue signal switched off, starting in the Border area in 2008, he was astonished.

Fortunately, this situation seems about to change. SwitchCo is about to end its silence with a major advertising campaign telling people when switchover is happening in their area and what they have to do to deal with it – though it says reports of a &£300m budget are an exaggeration.

It has just appointed Freud Communications to lead the PR drive. But until the culture secretary gives the government go-ahead for the region-by-region timetable, SwitchCo has one hand tied behind its back.

The problem is that the Government has said it won’t authorise the timetable until it is confident that plans are in place to help the elderly and vulnerable to make the switch. You can see why. The prospect of thousands of pensioners losing their TV pictures and blaming the Government is not appealing.

In June, Jowell announced a pilot scheme to run in Bolton this autumn. It will investigate how best to provide assistance, whether through leaflets, dedicated phone lines, support from social workers and charities or installation by professional engineers.

“We know there will be people who need assistance to understand, install and use digital television equipment,” she said. What she didn’t mention was the cost. As well as a digital receiver box for each of their TV sets and video recorders, many people may need a new TV aerial. If they can’t afford it, will it come out of the licence fee – or is that what Jowell meant by “support from social workers and charities”?

SwitchCo board members hope Jowell will announce the switchover timetable next week in Cambridge, so things can get moving – but it’s not yet known whether she will do so.

However, one significant group does have the issue in its sights. The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has just opened an inquiry and it seems to mean business. It has called it firmly “Analogue switch-off”, not “Digital switchover”.

For broadcasters and advertisers, it could be a wake-up call.v

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