CAMPAIGN REPORT ON EUROPEAN MEDIA: Digital leaders - Which European countries and companies are ahead of the digital TV game?

International broadcasters have been preparing for the digital future for many years, but while each European country is dealing with similar issues surrounding the take-up of digital and the ensuing platform wars, some are playing the game far more strategically than others.

International broadcasters have been preparing for the digital

future for many years, but while each European country is dealing with

similar issues surrounding the take-up of digital and the ensuing

platform wars, some are playing the game far more strategically than


The general consensus across the industry is that the UK is ahead of its

neighbours in all things digital by at least five years. This accolade

was most recently bestowed on Britain by its newest media mogul, NTL’s

chief executive, Barclay Knapp. Speaking at a recent Royal Television

Society lecture, Knapp said: ’The UK has, bar none, the best, highest

capacity, most flexible communications network in the world. Why do you

think Microsoft is so keen to be involved here?’

Jeremy Swinfen-Green, group digital media director of Carat

International, agrees that Sky and ONdigital may be slightly ahead in

the ’traditional’ fields of digital cable, satellite or terrestrial, but

argues that newer, innovative services such as interactive TV have been

a feature of many European countries for some time. ’The UK isn’t

dictating in this field, as most European companies are going their own

way according to what people are used to in that country.’ Swinfen-Green

says that while the UK’s pay TV dominance is well known overseas, the

likes of France and the Netherlands have led the way in services

including online shopping and online banking.

The hierarchy of digital services in Europe is a fairly familiar


One or two main platform providers dominate in each country and

subscriber levels remain steady but not spectacular. It is widely

accepted that Europe is way ahead of the US in everything connected with

television, apart from the ability to produce sure-fire hit programmes

that can be sold and syndicated around the world.

Within Europe, the UK appears to lead the field with its two key

players, BSkyB and ONdigital, even if its subscriber levels don’t tell

the whole story, with both well under the million mark. France is in

second place and boasts Canal Satellite Numerique out of the Canal+

network, which dominates the market with 1.163 million subscribers, as

well as TF1’s Television Par Satellite (640,000) and ABSat (65,000).

Spain is nudging in behind France with Canal+’s Canal Satellite Digital

(670,141) and Telefonica’s Via Digital (348,000). The Spanish market is

opening up for new cable operators and sources suggest that the picture

for digital cable in Spain could look very different in a year’s


Spain’s digital terrestrial market is very advanced, with Italy the only

close contender. In turn, Italian digital satellite is more advanced

than its cable or terrestrial services. The market leaders are Telepiu

D+ and Mediaset from Canal+ and Stream from Telecom Italia, which covers

cable and satellite.

Germany is described by analysts as ’on the brink’. It may have been a

little slow in take-up, but observers believe it will catch up


’Germany is like a blinking traffic light, with everyone rushing to get

there quickly,’ says Beth Erez, director of conditional access strategy

and marketing for NDS (News Digital Systems), a News Corp company that

provides, among other things, the electronic programme guide for


Erez explains that with a pervasive free-to-air service, cable is only

just about to happen in Germany through Deutsche Telekom. So far, the

KirchGruppe’s digital satellite channel, DF1, boasts 300,000 digital

subscribers as of January 1999, which it hopes to expand to three

million by the year 2000.

One thing that the industry can’t seem to agree on is who will lead the

field in interactive television. Both Erez and Swinfen-Green point to

the fact that if you calculate the number of households across Europe

with access to digital TV, it comes to around six million, compared to

just over ten million for the internet. Swinfen-Green says this figure

is highly significant. ’There has definitely been a shift in focus,’ he

says. ’It’s not just a case of redesigning websites for television, it’s

a huge shift in the way interactive services are provided and, as yet,

we don’t know which company or country will exploit this in the best


Erez, of course, believes Sky will master interactivity, as it has all

other things. She insists that even if she weren’t working for Rupert

Murdoch, she would hold the view that he is the only genuine innovator

in Europe. ’He has been the only person willing to take risks over

digital and interactive technology,’ she says.

The man known as J2M may take issue with this. As head of the French

company, Vivendi, Jean Marie Messier recently bought up another 15 per

cent in Canal+ while simultaneously acquiring Pearson and Granada’s

stakes in BSkyB, giving him control of 24.5 per cent of Murdoch’s

company. French industry insiders say if there is an executive who can

second-guess consumer demand for digital and interactive services better

than Murdoch, it’s J2M. One source says: ’Canal+ is already nipping at

the UK’s heels in digital, but Messier will do a lot more than nip.’

Erez is developing a handful of interactive services that she hopes will

make the UK not just the leader in Europe, but the world. She is

responsible for BSkyB’s Sports Active, its interactive Premier League

service, and plans to launch catalogues that viewers can flip through

and buy from, mail order-style. ’Current advertising works well in the

existing television environment, but with the advent of personal

recording devices this will have to change,’ she says.

She is referring to devices like X-TV and TiVo, both personal video

recording systems that gain a detailed demographic picture of the

individual viewer, and record programmes accordingly while they are

asleep at night, thus providing an a la carte programme schedule.

’Agencies are going to have to get used to the idea of targeted

advertising across interactive services,’ Erez says. ’While programme

schedules will be carefully tailored to suit the make-up of the

individual viewer, advertisers in Europe will have to follow suit or get

left behind.’

Campaign report

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