Nineteen ninety-seven, you’ll recall, was to have been the Year of Going Digital. Except it wasn’t. The revolution meant to sweep over broadcasting, rendering EastEnders indistinguishable from the Internet and turning domestic TVs into branches of John Lewis, remained obstinately stalled. Nineteen ninety-eight will be different. Probably. Prediction is a mug’s game, but if digital television doesn’t arrive this year, something will have gone seriously wrong – something more than the combination of foot-dragging, regulatory hiccups and indecision on the part of the cable industry which have dogged digital’s development so far. In theory, BSkyB’s digital satellite service goes live sometime in the spring, although British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB) – the joint venture company which is supposed to offer interactive services alongside up to 200 channels of television, and to subsidise the cost of set-top boxes to bring them down to about 200 retail, and in which both BSkyB and BT are involved – is still the subject of inquiry by the European Union’s regulatory authorities. The biggest cable company, CWC, will launch a digital service (featuring Sky programming) jointly with BSkyB. The other cable companies, including Telewest, NTL and General Cable, are talking of launching a rival service with some unique pay-per-view pro- gramming, at about the same time. The digital terrestrial television licensee, British Digital Broadcasting (BDB), is scheduled to begin operations next autumn – though it has yet to appoint a chief executive. After a year characterised by restless comings and goings among top television executives, a period of stability at the top of most of Britain’s broadcasting operations can be expected: running BDB is one of the few plum jobs still unfilled. Of course, it may be more of a bed of nails. Although there is general agreement that digital broadcasting represents an inevitable development, there is no such agreement about how quickly the future will arrive, or by which route it will be reached. For every analyst confidently predicting a brilliant future for digital (Datamonitor, for instance, reckons there’ll be almost 20 million digital households in Europe by 2002, generating business worth $11bn), there are others who warn of adverse consequences for at least some players in the market. A study by Oliver & Ohlbaum last year, for instance, suggested that the switch from analogue to digital cable and satellite may take until the year 2007, by which time pay TV revenue (excluding interactive services like home shopping) will be generating 5.1bn from over 12 million homes in the UK. But the switch will put pressure on the operators of existing premium pay services, especially movie channels – which may help to explain why BSkyB has not been rushing into digital – and on cable operators, which are likely to have racked up another 2bn of losses before they start to make any money from television – something Oliver & Ohlbaum reckon they won’t achieve before 2003. And the bad news for BDB’s new boss, whoever he or she may be, is that digital terrestrial multiplex providers will have to invest well over 400m before breaking even in 2003 – which helps to explain why the share prices of BDB’s two investors, Carlton and Granada, have been a little shaky of late. What’s more, no other country has attempted to launch a digital terrestrial service, and the notion on which BDB is based – namely that people who have hitherto resisted the lure of multichannel TV will be rushing to subscribe once it’s being offered by well-known and respected names like Granada, the BBC and, um, Carlton – remains entirely unproven. Meanwhile, experience in other European countries, where digital television has, for the most part, yet to break out of its status as a niche service, offers only subdued cause for optimism. Whatever the question-marks hanging over it, however, to a future historian the launch of digital will undoubtedly be the media story of 1998. But it may not dominate the headlines. I confidently predict that more column inches and airtime are likely to be expended instead on the battle for the World Cup – not on the football pitch, but on the nation’s television screens, where the BBC, delighted for once to have live access to a feast of first-class football not exclusive to Sky, is proposing to broadcast all the matches in the early rounds, rather than alternating coverage with ITV. The ratings should prove interesting. Then there’s the continuing shake-out in the regional press, further consolidation in commercial radio, the future of the magazine industry (and, in particular, IPC) and the burning question of how all these developments will be affected by the slowdown in economic growth now being widely forecast. The coming year is unlikely to be a dull one in the media business: and if all else fails, we can no doubt rely on that latest and most unlikely recruit to the ranks of media moguls, Chris Evans, to pull another rabbit out of the hat and keep us all entertained and amazed.
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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here