Digital’s changes to viewing habits

Awesome,” was how one media buyer described the digital television in his office. “Personally, I could do without it,” says an ordinary digital TV viewer.

After launching just over a month ago, BSkyB’s new pay-TV service – Sky Digital – is making its first impressions. Already the company says it has 100,000 subscribers and that it is on course for 200,000 by the end of the year, while ONdigital, the joint venture between Carlton and Granada, is expected to launch on November 15, and is to be followed by digital cable next year.

So, after all the talk of how digital will “revolutionise” the way we watch television, what differences has it made to viewing behaviour so far?

Sky’s electronic programme guide (EPG), the improved picture quality and the near-video-on-demand service have enhanced TV viewing for Neil Jones, a director at media agency Carat and one of the first people in the country to install digital television in his home.

“The picture quality is a definite improvement and the EPG is excellent; it’s a very powerful tool,” he says.

“I’m watching more of Sky Box Office – movies and sport events that cost extra – because I can use the EPG to order things straight off the screen. I pay for them through my existing direct debit to Sky. It has taken the hassle out of having to order over the telephone.”

Jones also says he is watching more Box Office films because the staggered start times are so convenient: “If it takes us a bit longer to get the children into bed one evening we can still watch the film we want simply by starting the process 15 minutes later,” he says.

Andy Roberts, buying director at Motive Communications, has digital TV at work. He thinks that Sky’s audio channels will increase channel surfing in programme breaks.

He says: “Digital TV gives you so many things to do in programme breaks and that’s even before interactivity launches. Unless it’s a great programme, people just won’t come back to it.

“There are more reasons to use the screen and traditional TV watching is only one of them,” he adds.

The EPG tends to direct consumers to certain channels in preference to others. The first part of the guide that appears on screen allows the viewer to choose themed blocks: entertainment, movies, sports, news and documentaries, children and music and specialist.

If the viewer clicks on the entertainment theme, for example, a page of numbered choices appears (in descending order) of BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky One, UK Gold, UK Gold Classic, Living, Disney and Granada Plus.

Some of the channels – particularly the small, general entertainment channels – get buried in the system. The user has to scroll down to the third page to find where to select the channel BBC Choice, for example.

Mark Cranmer, Motive’s managing director, also points out that the mass channels such as BBC1, BBC2, C4 and C5 are only listed in the “entertainment” bracket. They are not listed among the film channels, news channels, children’s channels and so on.

David Cuff, broadcast director at Initiative Media, argues that what is offered on the digital TV channel is not that different from satellite or cable. Of Sky’s 140 channels, once the pay-per-view movie channels and audio channels are accounted for, only about 50 fall into the general or specialist category, and almost all of these are already familiar to multichannel homes. Cuff says: “People will not necessarily watch more TV. They will build up a repertoire of about eight to nine channels.”

Another viewer taking part in a Sky Digital trial says: “The family ends up not exactly arguing but at least discussing what we really want to watch.”

He continues: “If nothing is on, there is the temptation to keep looking for something to watch, however boring, rather than turning it off and doing something else. Life’s too short to watch even more TV.”

It bothers him that with all this choice, the family still spends the majority of its time watching the standard channels, leaving him with the nagging feeling that he is not using the system’s full capabilities. “I think too much choice worries people,” he says.

Sky is preparing to enhance viewers’ enjoyment with new interactive services. Viewers will be able to click on an on-screen icon and pull up news headlines, for example, or watch replays of a goal scored in the first half of a football match in one quarter of the screen.

This will be followed next year by the launch of British Interactive Broadcasting. This service will offer viewers the chance to book holidays and shop and do their banking through the TV.

As the early adopters of digital TV begin making their own conclusions about the impact of more channels on their leisure time, more profound changes to viewing habits are sure to come.

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