‘Go digital TV’ drive sends the signal loud and clear

The man charged with persuading the UK public to “go digital” before analogue TV signals are scrapped faces a thankless, seven-year task. Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital UK, the not-for-profit body co-ordinating the switchover, must inform people that they will need to install new viewing equipment ahead of a date that has been set by the Government, out of their own pockets.

By Ennals’ admission, one in five UK residents feels aggrieved that they should have to shell out, while reports set awareness of the programme at two-thirds of the population at most. Understanding of what the switchover entails is lower still.

Ennals, a former group marketing director at Lloyds TSB, relishes the challenge, setting out with an evangelical zeal the reasons why citizens should comply. “A minority – probably 20 per cent – do feel this is unfair,” he says. “They believe the market should be allowed to decide, not the Government. But that is 20 per cent, not 80 per cent. Even if you look at that 20 per cent, we know that just about all of them are going to convert. The mission of our programme is for no household to get left behind.”

He adds: “Analogue and digital signals share the same airwaves. You can’t extend digital signals without impacting on analogue. It doesn’t make sense to sustain that for less than ten per cent of the population who want TV to stay the same.”

Ennals argues the Government says it would be inefficient to run both analogue and digital together, claiming that the release of the analogue spectrum will result in new services. Ofcom last week launched a debate on how to use the spectrum. An auction looks the most likely option, although it would be unlikely to fetch the &£22bn raised in 2000 for third-generation mobile telephone service licences.

A cost-benefit analysis of digital switchover by the Department of Trade and Industry earlier this year estimated it could fetch up to &£1.5bn. The spectrum could be allocated to existing users to allow them more channels or high-definition television, or be used for new services such as wireless broadband or television-over-mobile.

“Our programmes will be done in a reassuring and measured way. There is no need for people to panic: the majority of the UK won’t change for five years,” says Ennals.

The change will take place by region, starting with Border, between 2008 and 2012. At present, 63 per cent of UK households have digital TV, with 200,000 moving to digital each month, according to Ofcom. It predicts that households that are reluctant to move to digital will cost &£572m to convert. There will be government help for those aged 75 and over, and people with disabilities. Meanwhile, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO has been appointed to Digital UK’s &£10m annual creative account to create local TV, online and press work, starting its campaign three years before each regional switchover date.

Ennals compares the project to the pre-launch marketing of London’s Congestion Charge. He says that before the charge was introduced, commentators predicted chaos, adding: “Contrast that with what happened. You may not like the charge, but it has achieved what it set out to do. Persuading people to switch to digital is nowhere near as revolutionary, but is generating the same negative headlines. Digital TV in all its forms is better for the consumer.”

The Government and broadcasters must hope that by 2012 the public concurs.

Catherine Turner

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