FORUM: Will digital TV’s launch prove to be a damp squib? - Digital television is great in theory - and that’s where some people in the advertising business feel happiest embracing it. The closer it comes to reality, the more ragged it see

Digital television has just had a pretty shaky week. We had the European Commission telling British Interactive Broadcasting - that’s the interactive bit of BSkyB’s proposed digital satellite service - that it would probably contravene competition rules. The reason? Sky’s partner in BIB is British Telecom.

Digital television has just had a pretty shaky week. We had the

European Commission telling British Interactive Broadcasting - that’s

the interactive bit of BSkyB’s proposed digital satellite service - that

it would probably contravene competition rules. The reason? Sky’s

partner in BIB is British Telecom.

Both Sky and BT are dominant in their respective markets - too powerful,

the Brussels bureaucrats argue, to be allowed to control technological

access to the whole digital television medium.

Digital satellite without interactivity is just more satellite TV.

Better quality pictures, no doubt, but more satellite TV all the same.

Those with dishes already have multi-channel TV coming out of their


So, a delay to the launch schedule is inevitable. Box manufacturers

aren’t going to churn out the equipment until the issue is settled.

BSkyB insists that it soon will be - in time for a pre-Christmas launch.

Many observers remain sceptical, believing spring 1999 would be a better

bet. Meanwhile, as the City becomes nervous about the size of the

project, BSkyB’s share price has been suffering.

Interactivity isn’t as important a selling proposition for digital


It’s just as well really because the terrestrial decoder boxes won’t

offer interactivity - for the foreseeable future at any rate. But it

isn’t exactly going to be plain sailing for the British Digital

Broadcasting terrestrial franchise consortium led by Carlton and Granada

- as evidenced last week when BSkyB demanded payment of the pounds 70

million it is owed. The money is compensation for the fact that BSkyB,

which was part of the proposed consortium in its earliest incarnations,

was forced to pull out after warnings that its presence could be


The wrangle helped to remind the marketplace that BDB remains something

less than the sum of its parts. Channel and programming line-ups remain

worryingly vague.

Chatting about the theory, as we did last year, was all very nice - but

aren’t we starting to realise that the reality is going to be rather

less than impressive?

David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, doesn’t

underestimate the potential hazards of the enterprise. ’Substantial

losses will be incurred, especially in the short term. That’s why the

pounds 70 million is so important to BSkyB. The biggest impact on the

media environment will be the drain on resources across the sector. The

BBC we don’t particularly care about - loss of audience will be a good

thing from our point of view, but it will make a dent in the profits of

Granada, Carlton and Sky. There will also be a draining of talent from

mainstream television - where the audience is - into pinhead TV. On the

positive side, with Carlton and Granada’s attention focused here,

Richard Eyre might feel unhindered at ITV.’

Cuff argues that digital in any of its formats won’t accelerate the

current growth trend in multi-channel television - which, he predicts,

will experience the same slow build as all new audiovisual products,

including colour TV, in the UK.

Others disagree. Simon Rees, the deputy managing director of TMD Carat,

believes there should be no cause for pessimism about digital. ’If you

believe the political will exists to switch off terrestrial analogue by

2010, digital has to get off the ground, it’s as simple as that,’ he


But there is a growing realisation that, with digital terrestrial at

least, this isn’t going to be a conventional media launch. The analogy

with other high-profile launches, such as Channel 5 or even Sky TV,

doesn’t work. BDB will only really manage the transmission platform and

the subscription systems. The channels will be branded as per their

suppliers - Carlton, Granada, Flextech and Sky, which still retains a

five-year programming contract with the venture.

And last week, there were mutterings when some agency people realised

that there would be no central BDB digital sales team. They were rather

perplexed. Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton UK Sales,

believes that they shouldn’t be. He states: ’I don’t think there is any

need to introduce yet another sales operation. Digital is another form

of transmission for our programming. They should be aware of that. I

think it’s the job of agencies to embrace the multi-channel environment

on behalf of their clients.’

Tony Wheble, Flextech’s vice-president of advertising sales, agrees.

’Maybe we should be making more effort to educate some agencies about

this. If, say, UK Gold is part of the BDB package, that provides a

larger potential universe for the channel. And I think it will. We have

to look at why many households haven’t yet decided to take up

multi-channel television but I’m sure they will understand that digital

is the future. But from a sales point of view, we have no preferences

about distribution systems here.’

In a broader context, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. There

will surely be problems in trying to market the DBD digital transmission

system and the decoder box separately from channels and content. Isn’t

that going to be a tough prospect? Not necessarily, Mark Palmer, head of

communications strategy at BMP Optimum, counters. He uses a retail

analogy: ’People don’t go about saying, ’Isn’t Sainsbury’s confusing

because it has both Heinz and Crosse & Blackwell on its shelves?’ It’s

just something that has to be got across.

It’s sometimes depressing that the advertising industry can be so


We should be keen to learn. We so often reduce things to matters of

coverage and frequency and conventional media and advertising thinking.

At this stage, how they intend to sell airtime is not important.

Instead, we should all be embracing the notion that we are at the start

of fundamental changes to the pattern of television consumption.

’What is important is that we are talking to clients about what the

business implications of digital are. And I think terrestrial digital

will have a significant impact. Multi-channel access won’t be the only

issue but I still think that people will see BDB as the easiest way to

add more TV from the media brands they already know.’

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