MEDIA FORUM: Is advertising ready for digital TV and vice versa? A digital TV revolution is inevitable. But don't bet against the Government messing it up. So should adland be worried, Alasdair Reid asks

According to some seasoned observers, the Government may be

starting to realise that its digital television policy is an accident

waiting to happen. The subtext of last week's announcement on the

creation of special 'digital neighbourhoods' by the trade and industry

secretary, Stephen Byers, was that the Government now admits it may have

to subsidise the take-up of digital equipment among a pretty hefty chunk

of the population.

This comes against a backdrop of general scepticism about whether the

Government's targets are achievable - even with a big subsidy programme

- as well as criticism of its inability to decide on a target date for

switching off analogue transmission signals. In the worst case scenario,

it could find itself spending an awful lot of money to achieve

relatively little while upsetting almost everyone.

Not so long ago, it all looked simple. The advent of digital television

was going to be like the upgrade to colour TV in the late 60s and early

70s. It's still a bit like that, apparently - but these days, according

to digital TV optimists, it's also a bit like an awful lot of other

things. It's going to be a bit like decimalisation and the introduction

of hole-in-the-wall cash machines.

Oh yes, it's also going to be a bit like the mobile phone


But, of course, the analogies are hopeless. Since opening cashpoint

networks, for instance, the banks have still managed to keep one or two

of their branches open. But the Government is committed to an analogue

switch-off sooner rather than later so it can flog off the frequencies

that will be freed up. Yet the Government also says it won't switch off

analogue until 95 per cent of the population has digital TV. At present,

only 26 per cent of homes have upgraded - and analysts believe that once

the figure hits 60 per cent, growth will slow dramatically. A recently

published Consumers Association report indicates that 32 per cent of

people are very resistant to the idea of digital. Is the Government's

digital strategy in trouble? And if it is, should anybody in the

advertising industry care?

Jessica Mann, the communications director of ONdigital, says there is

every reason for continued optimism about growth in digital - and she

argues that it has been impressive to date. But she does believe the

Government can do more - though not necessarily in terms of preparing to

flood the market with free TV sets. 'What we feel is needed is a very

clear and punchy information campaign from the Government - along the

lines of the campaign encouraging people to use lead-free petrol. When

you are attempting to change people's behaviour - which is essentially

what is involved here - the public needs information and guidelines. So

far, that's been left to us and other pay-TV companies. What's needed

now is some Government emphasis and commitment on this. It's more than a

year since Chris Smith first got up and said this country was going

digital, but in that year of five million TV sets sold, only 100,000

were digital. We need a powerful public information campaign and we also

need the Government to put one very senior person in charge of this -

someone with the power and the authority to make it happen.'

The existing digital players tend to believe that the market can deliver

and that programming will be a 'key driver', especially if the BBC can

begin to embrace the digital future imaginatively. But surely that alone

won't drive penetration above 95 per cent? Remember, we're not just

talking about decoder boxes here - we're talking about expensive high

definition TV sets too. But Mann still doesn't believe that it will be

necessary to give away kit to more than a small percentage of the

population - for instance, pensioners and those on income support.

But she would say that because there's a potential nasty chicken and egg

situation here. If the Government gives the wrong signals and everyone

believes there might be free gear available, then they will inevitably

delay their digital decision. Some critics are also sceptical about the

ability of programming to drive take-up. Churn figures among ONdigital

subscribers have hardly been encouraging. And, as we face a possible

recession, ONdigital's owners, Carlton and Granada, will be feeling the

pinch, as will Sky and the cable companies. They've already been

subsidising the market by giving lots of free decoder boxes away.

Mick Perry, the vice-chairman of Universal McCann, believes the last 10

per cent will be hard to convert - even by 2010, the latest date for the

analogue switch-off according to the Government schedule. He says: 'Even

if 90 per cent of the population is happy, that still leaves 10 per cent

that aren't - and the uproar that would be generated by the 10 per cent

would be a political nightmare.'

But will this uncertainty worry advertisers? Not overly, Perry argues:

'In the overall scheme of things, it's not going to stop advertisers

reaching consumers with advertising messages. Obviously we'd like as

many people switched over as soon as possible and the cleaner and tidier

it is the better. But the industry has been pretty pleased at the speed

of progress so far and the opportunities that brings.'

Is that true? Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of

Kimberly-Clark, believes there could be digital trouble ahead: 'You have

to remember that consumers didn't actually ask for digital. Is improved

picture quality really a sufficient attraction? That's unproven. As is

the staying power of all these new channels. Don't get me wrong - we're

not putting our heads in the sand.

We spend money on new channels. It's just that it's a proportionately

small amount of money. All the same, this issue does affect us - and the

question of subsidising the market is a difficult one. We encourage

growth and competition in the television marketplace but it's the

quality of that competition that's a concern. And, yes, the lack of

certainty here is confusing from a media planning point of view.'

Andy Roberts, the executive director of UK buying at Starcom Motive,

thinks the confusion will deepen. 'I honestly don't think there's any

way they'll get anywhere near 95 per cent,' he predicts. 'As far as I

can recall, the penetration of colour TV sets even now is only about 98

per cent. And the issue of second sets is far larger than anyone has

acknowledged - they will become redundant at a stroke. I'm not sure the

Government understands the political problems that lie ahead. But as for

advertisers, I'm not sure this is an issue that is worrying. In fact,

you could argue that if technology makes advertising more difficult,

potentially reducing brand cut-through, then some people might not be

worried if digital arrives at a slower pace.'

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