How SkyDigital shaped viewing habits with the push of a button

SkyDigital’s electronic guide provides easy access to the myriad channels, changing what we watch and how often, says Torin Douglas

So, one year on from D-Day, how has it been for you? Has digital television changed your life – or, at least, your viewing habits? Has it lived up to your expectations? Or have you, despite holding down a job that qualifies you to read Marketing Week, still not taken the digital plunge?

For us SkyDigital veterans, watching television is different now. On holiday this year, we rented a house with a TV set that picked up only four channels (Channel 5 has yet to conquer parts of Dorset) and it was quite a shock to the system. At home, we have 30 times that number – and, between the five of us, we watch a fair proportion of them.

Of course, we still spend the bulk of our time with the terrestrial channels – but we make more use of the multichannel alternatives than we did before, because the Electronic Programme Guide makes it easier to find our way around.

Who would have thought we would have watched half a dozen separate music channels each week? MTV, MTV Extra, VH1, VH1 Classic, M2 and UK Play all get regular airings in our household. These have become “default” channels with the two teenagers, a backdrop to slump against if there’s nothing specific they want to watch.

That’s unless the eight-year-old is prepared to fight her corner. Cartoon Network, Cartoon Network Plus, Nickelodeon, Nickelodeon Replay, the Disney Channel and Sky One’s kids programmes make up her repertoire. Terrestrial channels occasionally attract her attention, but – like many children – once she’s in multi-channel mode it’s easier to flick up and down through the kids’ channels (numbers 601 to 611 on the Sky EPG).

Even Disney finds it harder to jog her memory because it’s not listed as a “kids channel”. The EPG puts it under “entertainment”, so instead of pressing the “channel up” and “channel down” buttons a couple of times until she reaches it, she has to key in the number (and even though she doesn’t need to look it up, she’ll see what’s on the other channels first).

We watch all five Sky Sports channels (including Sky Sports News and the interactive Sky Sports Extra). And though the Ryder Cup attracted many fewer viewers because it was not live on terrestrial television, those of us with Sky had a choice of coverage: Sky’s own or the US network’s.

We (that’s me and the teenage sports fanatic, who’s said he’ll leave home if we ever give up Sky Sports) are disappointed with the interactive elements of Sky Sports Extra – the highlights, the choice of camera angles, the match facts and the trivia. We’d been awaiting the service with keen anticipation ever since it was previewed to City analysts at the BSkyB results presentation in the spring. I then showed it at the TV ’99 Barcelona conference and was besieged by delegates wanting to know more about it and when they could get it.

So what’s wrong with it? There is only one extra camera angle – from behind the goal – whereas I had expected more. (Years ago, when the late but unlamented cable company Videotron was briefly in pioneering mode, it offered us at least three camera angles.)

The highlights sequence is a benefit, allowing you to come in halfway through a match and see what you’ve missed, but unfortunately it’s on a loop, and I always seem to come in when they’re showing the third goal, rather than the first. (And during Sunday’s Chelsea-Manchester United match, they only showed the second goal for quite a long while.) The match facts are good but the trivia is uninspiring, and the whole interactive system is slow, taking too long to switch between functions. The net result is we don’t use it much, and – if charged for it – wouldn’t pay.

Repeated comedy has emerged as another “default” genre, often bumping more challenging fare off the screen. There’s plenty of comedy on the terrestrial channels, but it comes wall-to-wall on the Paramount Comedy Channel (Drop The Dead Donkey, Frasier, Cheers, Whose Line Is It Anyway?), and most of the evening on UK Gold (which recently reran the whole of Blackadder and Fawlty Towers) and Sky One (with The Simpsons and Friends). The ability of the EPG to tell you what’s showing now – or in a few minutes – on other channels makes it easier to find these programmes.

Of course, we watch a lot of films – though that hasn’t stopped us renting videos. But why is it that we will often watch a film when it’s been scheduled by a TV channel, even though we’ve already got the video of it and could have watched it at any time we chose?

News is constantly available too, whether through News 24, Sky News or CNN (Bloomberg and CNBC still haven’t made much headway with us). But, by the time I’ve watched the BBC’s Six O’Clock News, ITV’s at 6.30, Channel 4’s at 7, the Channel 5 headlines at 8, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News, BBC2’s Newsnight at 10.30 and ITV’s Nightly News at 11, I don’t really feel the need for much more.

Yet lots of channels have still not made it onto our repertoire. Living, the Granada channels, Challenge TV, Bravo, Trouble, Fox Kids, Sci-Fi , QVC, and the whole gamut of documentary channels rarely trouble the scorer in our digibox. Nor have we watched some of the BBC-Flextech channels – including UK Style, UK Arena and UK Horizons – as much as we thought we would. Nor BBC Choice, nor BBC Knowledge.

As for poor old ITV2, it’s not even on the SkyDigital system. But this is the month it should start to come into its own, with several Rugby World Cup and UEFA Champions’ League matches. And since ONdigital has kindly lent me a box for comparison, I shall report on the terrestrial digital experience in two weeks’ time.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News


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