Media: Behind the hype - UK digital TV stalls on the road to universal uptake

The Govt wants switchover but not at the expense of its popularity, Ian Darby writes.

Ploughing through statements from Ofcom is never the most joyous of tasks. Like most regulators and quangos, it tends to couch its announcements in sub-clauses so complex that they would humiliate even Charles Dickens.

But its report on digital switchover makes interesting reading. Lest we forget, the Government is, in a very half-hearted kind of way, intimating that, by 2010, UK television broadcasting will have moved entirely over from analogue to digital technology.

The Ofcom report makes no less than 23 recommendations in an attempt to ease this massive process. Top of the agenda is an attempt to shake the Department of Culture, Media and Sport out of its apathy on the issue.

"Greater certainty should be given over the timing of the switchover," Ofcom says in uncharacteristically bold and clear language.

But it was Ofcom's statement on introducing charges for using the digital spectrum for the BBC and Channel 4 that has caused most of a stir. At present, the Beeb and Channel 4, unlike their commercial rivals such as ITV and five, do not pay for access to the analogue spectrum.

So you'd expect Channel 4 in particular to be up in arms about this.

But not a bit of it. Channel 4 and its chief executive, Mark Thompson, are apparently in sanguine mood about Ofcom's proposal.

A spokesman for Channel 4 says: "Ofcom and the Government buy the argument that any money taken away from Channel 4 and the BBC is money taken away from programming for viewers. We're fairly confident that although they are going to introduce the principle of spectrum charging that this will be set at naught."

Channel 4's argument makes sense. The channel is part-funded by public service contribution so to take some of this back in spectrum charging seems pointless.

Assuming that Channel 4 is right in its contention that spectrum charges won't be a burden, the wider issue surrounds when this whole switchover will occur.

There are still millions of households in the UK that, despite Freeview moving towards penetration in four million homes and Sky in more than seven million, are in the dark ages of television in receiving an analogue signal.

Cynics argue that political expediency, rather than technical drawbacks, is likely to hamper the switchover. Comments from the former Channel 5 director David Elstein, that switchover is more likely to occur in 2015 rather than 2010, ring true to many. After all, when switchover occurs many viewers are likely to experience a TV blackout and who is going to want to be blamed for such inconvenience?

Mark Priestley, a director at Carat, says: "No government wants to be accused of leaving a percentage of the population without access to television. There needs to be information and help from the Government, which has so far refused to set a date."

But agencies seem relatively relaxed about the potential chaos ahead.

As Priestley points out, the switchover, though it could herald a whole new era of convergence, is not causing too much excitement: "It's obviously of benefit to have a tidy set-up in homes: it's one less set of numbers to deal with. But apart from enabling more people to watch interactive ads, which are a small percentage of ads anyway, it won't change too much initially."

The one consistent message emerging seems to be the need for stronger leadership on the issue from the Government. With a general election looming, it's unlikely, however, that digital switchover is high on its agenda.

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