When I predicted two weeks ago that communications regulator Ofcom would soon find itself in the firing line over “the digital switchover” I didn’t think it would happen quite so quickly.
Yet last week it became clear that switching off the analogue television system – and the need to convert an estimated 75 million TV sets to digital – will cause a major public policy row, and much sooner than had been widely realised. The date in most people’s minds is 2012. But the first regions to lose their TV signals – raising the prospect of pensioners and the poor being left without programmes – could do so in 2008.
And while Ofcom is in the firing line, there is no clear line of responsibility. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), broadcasters and several other bodies are all involved – and it is not clear where the buck stops.
Two events last week crystallised the issue. The first was a briefing to the Broadcasting Press Guild by the Digital Television Group, which represents all sides of the argument – broadcasters, platform and multiplex owners, TV manufacturers, electrical retailers, government departments and regulators.
Within the DTG is a working group that will soon be constituted as Switchco, the body that must implement the switch. It is expected to be fronted by BBC head of distribution Andy Townsend. He insists that the digital switchover is a matter not of “if” but “when”.
The timetable is already laid down by Ofcom and is under way. The recently issued licences for ITV, Channel 4 and Five all contain a requirement to switch from analogue to digital by the end of 2012. The new BBC charter is expected to contain the same commitment.
The DTG executives seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the questions asked by the journalists. But, as Townsend discovered, that was nothing compared to the fireworks that broke out the following morning, at the Oxford Media Convention.
One speaker, Chris Goodall of the strategy company Enders Analysis, challenged the Government’s cost-benefit analysis showing that the nation will gain up to &£2bn in benefit from the switch to digital. He claimed – with what he admitted were back-of-the-envelope calculations – that the nation would lose more than &£5bn from hidden costs of the move, on top of buying digital receivers.
His most startling claim was that Freeview boxes add &£17 a year to every household’s electricity bill. This would cost consumers &£3.5bn over 20 years, as well as reducing the UK’s ability to meet its environmental targets under the Kyoto agreement.
Other costs would include the need to upgrade aerials on blocks of flats or homes that currently use set-top aerials, or to install satellite systems where Freeview coverage remains non-existent, even after switchover. That could cost &£865m. A further &£400m could be needed to help the old and vulnerable make the switch, even if voluntary organisations do the work free of charge.
Speakers from the DCMS, DTI and Ofcom leapt to challenge Goodall’s assertions. He said he’d asked the Government for their own figures and they hadn’t responded, and he’d welcome a more scientific assessment.
Jeremy Klein of the Generics Group has researched public attitudes to switchover for the DTI. He said just 38 per cent of people agreed with the idea of analogue switch-off. Even among those who already had digital television, only half favoured the plan to switch over by 2012. However, he said people were more open to the idea when it was positioned as an inevitable part of technological change.
The real problem was identified by Alan Williams of Which?: “How does the Government persuade the public of the benefits of switchover, as distinct from digital TV?” Most people can get the benefits of digital TV without any need to switch off the analogue system. The ones who can’t do so live in areas that cannot receive Freeview signals – and they won’t be able to until the analogue system is switched off in other regions.
BBC head of new media Ashley Highfield reiterated the DTG’s view: “It’s not if, but when digital switchover happens. The issue is timing – and also the extra cost of keeping the two systems going side by side.” Indeed, the BBC has volunteered to lead the switchover process as one of its charter review commitments.
Questioned at a later session, culture secretary Tessa Jowell also said “when, not if”. She put the decision on the timing of switchover firmly in the court of the broadcasters and Ofcom: “We think it’s their call – because they’ll be funding it.” She believed the move would be popular following the rise in Freeview sales over the past year, and said MPs were constantly asking her why their constituents couldn’t get Freeview and when they’d be able to do so. Maybe so – but just wait for the MPs’ questions when viewers find out their existing TV system is being taken away.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News