You overstate the impact of digital TV

While reading John Carter and Andrew Napier’s article on digital TV (MW March 12), I couldn’t help wondering if I was reading a copy of Advertising Age during the first era of interactive TV around 1992-1993.

Their conception of Digital TV is commonplace, but based on the simple misunderstanding that all Digital TV will be equal. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Digital TV is not a single standard, rather a standard with three, if not six, different variations.

Most concepts of digital TV are based on US trials by TCI and Warner Bros in the early Nineties. Ignoring some of the stories from the period (an early issue of Wired records the TCI video on demand trial where selected videos were collected from a library and placed in a video player), the trials all had one thing in common: cable. Unfortunately, it is these trials that act as the basis for most views of the future, regardless of the small take-up of cable in the UK.

Reality is often disappointing and digital TV is no exception. While cable will provide people with true interactivity and direct access to the Internet, satellite and terrestrial TV will merely provide more channels and more bandwidth to a box that is just as stupid as your current TV. BIB will (when launched) provide more information to satellite users but to access this feats of engineering may be required to plug the box into the telephone socket.

Hence, for the vast majority of people, digital TV will not change much apart from the number of channels and ad spots available. Whether this makes “versioning ads” practical is a moot point. Personally, I think the risk of someone seeing similar but slightly different ads outweighs the benefits. The current Sun campaign is a case in point. Between terrestrial and satellite the ad is the same, but the tagline is annoyingly, subtly different.

At the end of the day, all digital TV provides is more bandwidth. Used thoughtfully, this should give digital TV the ability to provide more information about a product.

It may not have got to the stage where people are invited to watch ads in return for a discount (again, from another early issue of Wired), but we should at last be able to tell them their nearest dealer or full details of last week’s recipe.

Ben Thompson

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