It's free. Well, it costs £99

Observations on television

Stand by for a wall of hype, as the BBC unleashes its biggest-ever marketing campaign. The campaign's subject will be Freeview, the new telly thingy launching on 30 October. What is it? A way of getting more TV channels without subscribing to satellite or cable. Instead, you pick up a box in the high street. Heard that one before? You have. This was the doomed pitch of ITV Digital, which collapsed six months ago, having cost shareholders £1.5bn. Will this resuscitated version work? No, but this time it's you who'll pick up the bill.

People normally buy in to multi-channel television to get new movies, top-class sport or porn. ITV Digital failed because it offered no porn, and fewer films and worse football than Sky. Freeview (though also digital) will offer no new movies, no sport and no porn. The highlight of its dim line-up is a music channel optimistically entitled The Hits, produced by Emap. Even the Emap paper Broadcast glumly notes that The Hits "is unlikely to cause a stampede at Dixons".

No matter. As its name implies, Freeview's selling point isn't quality but price. Unfortunately, it isn't completely free. The box costs £99. A third of the potential customers will have to spend at least as much again on a new aerial. Not too bad? Maybe, but why should people spend anything at all on telly you couldn't give away? Forecast take-up is not encouraging. So what's the point of the venture?

The lead player in the Freeview consortium is the BBC. In pursuit of its imperial ambitions, it is spending £3bn on digital channels that most licence-payers are unable to see. By investing more of their cash in Freeview, it will make these channels a bit more widely available, and that much more defensible. More importantly, in promoting digital television, it is pleasing the government. By doing so, it seems to have secured the renewal of its charter in 2006, despite the fierce criticism it is currently attracting. But why should politicians care how TV is transmitted?

The government wants to switch off the analogue television transmissions on which most of us still rely, and transmit on digital only. Digital signals take up less space on the airwaves, so the spectrum released could be auctioned, to produce cash for the exchequer. At the peak of communications hysteria, only a couple of years ago, wilder estimates suggested that the switch-off dividend might amount to anything up to £50bn. That sort of windfall might have meant that Gordon Brown's public services spending boost could be sustained for years without taxes having to be raised.

Unfortunately, this dream has died. Brown did manage to screw £22.5bn out of telecom companies for spectrum on which to transmit piles of data to "third-generation" mobile phones. Sadly, these companies have been unable to think of much to do with this expensive capacity, and now rue their recklessness. Today, the dividend which analogue television switch-off might yield is valued at less than £1bn. And Freeview is unlikely to bring even this small windfall very much closer.

Understandably enough, the government says it dare not switch off analogue until at least 95 per cent of households have gone digital. So far, not many more than 40 per cent have done so. Naturally, this figure already includes all those who really want more TV. To make switch-off possible, Freeview must therefore hook not just the apathetic (perhaps 35 per cent) but most of the openly hostile (another 25 per cent). Yet its signal will be unobtainable in a quarter of Britain's homes.

Manufacturers could help matters along by offering only "integrated" sets, already including digital decoders. In fact this is not as easy as it seems, and nearly all the sets now being bought are still analogue. The government could transform digital's prospects by setting a firm date for analogue switch-off. That way, we should all know that unless we converted, our sets would become useless after the stated date. However, this news might make us cross, so instead, there is merely a "target" for switch-off, of 2006-2010.

Few now believe there is any chance of this target being met. For even if 95 per cent of us do buy in to some form of digital TV for our main set, there will still be the problem of second sets and video recorders. The average home has four receiving devices. Few people will want to pay for conversion four times over; but a government which has already demonstrated its timidity in this field is hardly likely to render redundant two-thirds of the nation's tellies.

Freeview will deliver neither a cultural breakthrough nor the reallocation of national resources. Meanwhile, discontent about abuse of the TV licence fee is mounting fast. The blitz of promotion for this new service may do more to give this mood a boost than to shift digital decoders off high street shelves.