MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; DIGITAL TV: Has Murdoch already won the battle for digital TV viewers?

Digital terrestrial TV could be shaping up as a damp squib, Alasdair Reid says

Digital terrestrial TV could be shaping up as a damp squib, Alasdair

Reid says

Digital television will happen whether we like it or not. Remember the

transition from vinyl albums to CDs? People weren’t sure about CDs to

begin with - suspecting a con - but the electronics industry had decided

it was time everyone upgraded to a new generation of equipment.

In five years’ time, buying a new analogue TV will be about as easy as

buying vinyl is now. By then, of course, we will have allowed ourselves

to be convinced about the merits of digital - most of which come under C

for capacity.

Greater capacity means not just more channels but a richer mix of

options within each one. That will mean being able to transmit high

definition, wide-screen pictures; or pictures plus data; or giving

viewers access to all the camera positions at a football match and

allowing them to do a spot of picture editing from their armchairs.

The only real issue concerns just who is going to win the digital game.

And it’s a big issue - the losers might end up not playing at all. Last

week, the Government began the laborious process that will lead to the

allocation of licences for terrestrially delivered digital services,

with existing broadcasters being asked to declare their intentions.

Of the six digital multiplexes - each multiplex will be able to carry up

to six channels - two have been reserved for the current broadcasting


The BBC, which is keen, will have a multiplex to itself, where it will

‘simulcast’ most of its existing BBC television output in wide-screen

format. Other services will include a 24-hour news channel, educational

programming and a service to ‘support’ its BBC1 and BBC2 output.

Lobbying has already started for an increase in the licence fee.

ITV, plus Channels 4 and 5, will get half of another multiplex, again

mainly for simulcast transmissions. The rest of the terrestrial digital

capacity will be advertised later this month. ITV companies can apply

for space on these multiplexes - and presumably we’ll see the big guns

falling over themselves to establish a lead in this brave new digital

world, won’t we?

Well, not necessarily on terrestrial frequencies. Granada is reportedly

lukewarm about the whole idea and Carlton, although making all the right

noises, is scarcely more enthusiastic.

Digital terrestrial could be shaping up as the damp squib of the decade.

The reason? Look no further than Rupert Murdoch. BSkyB is already

building experience of digital broadcasting in Germany, where it is a

shareholder in the recently launched DF1 system. And Murdoch plans to

launch digital satellite channels next year in the UK - a full year

before terrestrial is scheduled to come on stream. There will be rather

a lot of them too - more than a hundred, in fact. It makes terrestrial

plans look rather puny.

But this isn’t the only factor in satellite’s favour. Mark Palmer, the

communications strategy director of WCRS, explains: ‘Whether it comes

via satellite or terrestrially, you still need to buy a box to decode

it. If you’re buying a box, why don’t you go the whole hog and get a

satellite box? But the point is that the people likely to buy a digital

box are the early adopters who already have satellite. BSkyB has the

database with the names of the people most likely to want digital.

‘Then there’s the issue of making it pay. Revenue will come mainly from

subscriptions and Murdoch has the technology and the programmes - sport

and films - people are willing to pay for.’

It’s slightly ironic, given that the beauty of digital is that it

creates so much more space on conventional airwaves - but in all

probability, by the time digital terrestrial gets out of the blocks, the

race will already be history.


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