MEDIA SPOTLIGHT ON: DIGITAL TELEVISION - Caution versus acceleration: the digital debate intensifies. What is the right date for the analogue switch-off? Alasdair Reid investigates

Everyone has their favourite analogy when it comes to digital TV. The most popular seems to be the advent of colour - high-quality, wide-screen digital being the next quantum leap in an inevitable programme of audio visual evolution.

Everyone has their favourite analogy when it comes to digital TV.

The most popular seems to be the advent of colour - high-quality,

wide-screen digital being the next quantum leap in an inevitable

programme of audio visual evolution.



Analogue televisions will disappear, pundits suggest, with as much

rapidity as the old 405 line black-and-white sets. Even faster, if it

becomes a matter of national political importance. Last week, the issue

moved a couple of slots up the political agenda with the Government

hinting it might offer licence-fee discounts to early digital

adopters.



That’s a potentially huge incentive. And, from a political point of

view, a wise insurance policy. The Government wants to commit itself

soon to a date when the analogue TV signal will be switched off. 2010 is

a date it would like to aim for. The sooner the commitment is given, the

quicker confidence will build in the television manufacturing sector

which, in turn, means equipment costs will start to drop. This, of

course, means the switch-off date could become a self-fulfilling

prophesy.



But this isn’t the only argument and the contrary view was taken up last

week by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. In response to

the Commons select committee on culture (which is pressing for a

switch-off commitment) the IPA argued the Government should not debate

this issue until 50 per cent of homes have digital sets. That, it

estimates, won’t happen until 2010 at the earliest (Campaign, 5

June).



Here we find different analogies at work. Memories of dodgy consumer

launches and long-forgotten gimmickry. Eight-track stereos, Betamax

video recorders, British Satellite Broadcasting squarials.



Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest and the IPA Media Policy

Group’s spokesman on the future of broadcasting, argues that it’s

important to keep a sense of perspective. ’A lot of vested interests are

tied up in the success of digital. It will only be a success if it

offers a clear consumer benefit. At the moment, I can’t see one.’



Those who agree think crude attempts to speed digital uptake could

backfire.



This issue could return to haunt the Government. But plenty disagree.

James Walker, the managing partner of MindShare’s Advanced Techniques

Group, argues the pessimists are wrong and are failing to act in the

best interests of advertisers.



’Research we’ve done indicates uptake will have a strangely shaped

curve: quick early on, slowing down, then speeding up again. In the

early days it will be driven by satellite - satellite interests have an

added incentive to migrate their audience because the analogue Astra

satellites will reach the end of their lives and start falling out of

the sky in 2000.



’Within two-and-a-half years, satellite and terrestrial digital combined

will add up to 36 per cent of households. The 50 per cent mark will be

reached in 2005. In terms of the efficiency of targeting digital will

bring, it is absolutely in the interests of advertisers. We should do

everything in our power to accelerate uptake.’



A Government commitment to switch off analogue at the earliest

opportunity might do that. Paul Longhurst, the executive media director

of Ammirati Puris Lintas, has revised his predictions, bringing

everything forward.



He argues digital TV is a more important project than anything the

consumer electronics business has seen before. It’s too important to

fail.



He states: ’We’re predicting the analogue signal will be off by

2008.



There are political risks but it’s clear the Government is absolutely

committed to the modernisation of TV. An early and confident

announcement on the analogue switch-off will help. Then I can see this

really begin to motor.’



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