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19 September 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Digital TV = Atomised Family?

A brave new world is nearly upon us: time to throw out the telly and embrace the all-in-one "hub mac

By Jonathan Leake

Television manufacturers are rubbing their hands with glee. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is expected to make an announcement imminently that will force millions of consumers either to scrap their old TVs or to buy a kit to keep them going a little longer.

Broadcast television is finally going digital. After years of negotiations, the analogue signals that currently feed most televisions are to be switched off and replaced by digital ones. Jowell is expected to announce that the switch-off will start with the Borders region in 2008 and finish with London by 2012.

For broadcasters and for the computer and consumer electronics industries it will be a revolution – but largely a welcome one. Lured by the huge flexibility offered by digital, both for programming and advertising, plus the prospect of selling billions of pounds’ worth of equipment, they have been pushing the government to make the switch for years. What’s more, they haven’t had to push too hard – because switching off the analogue signal will release broadcasting spectrum – which Gordon Brown also hopes to sell for billions.

It sounds like a good deal all round – a boost for modernity, business and the national coffers all in one go – except that someone, somewhere is going to have to pay for it. Those someones are Britain’s TV viewers – and what no one in industry or the government is talking too loudly about is how much it is going to cost them.

What is clear, however, is that millions of perfectly good TV sets are going to be rendered increasingly obsolete long before they reach old age. A large number of owners will be able to get round the problem with set-top boxes and other adaptors, but the restrictions will be increasingly irksome and, for technical reasons such as signal strength, may not always work. For many, the only solution will be new sets, new aerials and all the associated costs – which could exceed £2,100 per home, according to government estimates.

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Alongside the technical pressure for the change has come the corporate hype. The broadcasters say the digital switch-over will empower consumers – allowing them to access whatever programmes they want, whenever they want them, thus breaking the grip of the TV schedules.

Take, for example, the vision being conjured by Intel, maker of the chips that power most of the world’s PCs. Its publicity predicts nothing less than a “digital nirvana” for consumers who make the switch.

In Intel’s brave new world, the boring old TVs dominating most living rooms will soon be replaced in each home by a powerful computer, able to download and store films, choose and record TV programmes, store photos and music, or access the internet.

This “hub” machine will then beam its contents wirelessly to TV screens and audio speakers throughout the house. So, while the kids watch cartoons in their bedrooms, Dad can watch Men and Motors in the lounge and Mum can tune in to Radio 2 in the kitchen.

Intel is not alone: Microsoft, Apple, Dell and HP are all backing the PC to take over from the telly in dominating home entertainment. They face opposition, but only from the consumer electronics giants such as Sony and Panasonic, which want the same structure but with the hub PC replaced by another device – such as a souped-up digital TV or games console.

What all sides agree on is that, within ten years, Britain’s 24 million or so homes and families will have been transformed. Lounges will have been remodelled, no longer centred on big boxes on the floor but focused instead on big, wall-hanging screens. What’s more, parents and children will watch that screen together less than ever, preferring to go to their rooms to watch their own choice of programmes. Prepare yourself, then, for the “atomised family”: coming together, perhaps, at mealtimes, communicating by e-mails, text and instant messaging, and generally leading lives that are increasingly separate from each other despite being only a few yards apart.

Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research’s British laboratories in Cambridge, believes making that vision a reality will empower and democratise families. He has installed TVs and computers in his children’s bedrooms and says: “It was an organic process, not a grand plan, but we found it means they can make more of their own choices about what to watch or do. They even talk to each other by messaging.”

This may be a disturbing vision for some, but within the government, industry and the broadcast media it has become the norm to which we all aspire. Implicit within it is the assumption that however the digital TV revolution happens, it will bring a better world with it.

Digital TV, coupled with devices such as digital video recorders, could, for example, give consumers the power to call up old but beloved programmes on demand, to skip adverts, record hours of programmes or choose from the 1,000-plus channels experts predict will become available in Britain.

Andrew Burke, chief executive of BT Entertainment, who has just signed a deal with Microsoft to use its software to start delivering on-demand television to homes via BT’s broadband network from next year, believes television schedules are “very 20th century”.

“We want to give people control over what they watch,” he says. “They could break free from the schedules and call up anything – from the past seven days or past seven years. People will still tune in to the big live broadcasts such as soccer finals or the news, but if they want to call up something like Fawlty Towers they can do that, too. Viewing will become very personal – and that will pave the way for niche broadcasting, with small channels catering to special interests. If you like motorbikes, there might be a motorbike channel, for example.”

But as people head off to their rooms to pursue their “special interests”, big questions remain. How much will this cost? Who will pay? And how will the government avoid the exclusion of groups such as the poor, the elderly and the disabled?

One would expect ready answers to this, not least from Ofcom. The government’s broadcasting watchdog was set up to oversee such issues and look after consumers’ interests, but instead seems to have been infected by the industry excitement over the digital switch-over. Tim Suter, partner for content and standards at Ofcom, made this clear at a recent conference on regulating the broadcast media when he said: “Our guiding beacon is that we should be encouraging innovation, not standing in its way.”

Professor Vincent Porter, an expert in mass communications and spokesperson for the Voice of the Listener and Viewer group, points out that Ofcom has virtually no data on how much it will cost viewers to go digital. “It simply omits these costs from its market-place surveys,” he says. “Ofcom has been captured by the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries. Our estimate is that, typically, it will cost at least £600 per home to switch to digital, but some, notably those living in inner-city flats or in outlying areas with poor reception, could be forced to buy new aerials or switch to satellite or cable platforms, all of which bring additional costs.”

Just how high those costs might be became clear from a trial conducted recently at Ferryside and Llansteffan in Wales by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It cost £1m to convert 475 homes to digital – more than £2,100 per home. Much of that was because 45 per cent of the homes needed new aerials and cabling.

Then there are the running costs. No one will be obliged to buy tellies for every room, and the terrestrial channels, including Freeview, will remain free. But once the kit is there, all kinds of forces will come to bear, not least pester power on parents to buy new TVs and take out more subscriptions.

The potential and popularity of digital television should not be denied. Roughly 60 per cent of British homes already have access to digital by one means or another, which has sharply altered the way the industry makes money. Subscriptions and the like now account for 60 per cent of all commercial TV revenues, with advertising making up only 40 per cent. And with just 40 per cent of UK households relying on analogue, the value of advertising to them has fallen sharply – a big problem for ITV and terrestrial channels. However, that 40 per cent still represents approximately ten million homes. The people living in them are generally the poorer and older members of society, who will be hardest hit by being forced to buy and comprehend digital technologies. Ber-lin, a city that has already made the digital switch-over, recognised the social exclusion problem by giving grants to poorer people who needed digital adaptors and other kit. That will not happen in Britain. The exclusion of the poor, elderly and those with disabilities is a problem that is likely to grow if costs keep rising, as seems likely.

One of the attractions claimed for the digital switch-over has been the suggestion that viewers will be able to avoid adverts, simply by scrolling through them. This is, however, hype. Advertisers recognised the threat long ago and have been working to neutralise it.

John Tylee, associate editor of Campaign, the advertisers’ trade magazine, told a recent broadcasting conference that the 30-second advertising slot could disappear within a decade. But he foresees its replacement by something far more insidious: programme sponsorship and, the holy grail for his trade, product placement, which is at present banned by European directives.

If this ban were lifted, one might soon have Coronation Street actors asking for Cadbury’s chocolate at Rita’s corner shop, or demanding a pint of Stella Artois in the Rovers Return. Each mention would be a money-spinner for the broadcaster, and the line between advertising and programming would become ever more blurred.

Ofcom and its two sponsoring departments (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department of Trade and Industry), as well as the European Commission, are increasingly sympathetic to this idea. Last month the Commission released draft proposals for revising its “Television Without Frontiers” directive on broadcasting – a main plank of which was to lift the ban on product placement. The move is likely to win further formal approval later this month when Britain, through its EU presidency, hosts the European Broadcasting Conference in Liverpool.

At this point, all these changes begin to fit together. Just as hardware manufacturers are perfecting technology that will encourage families to fragment by sending adults and kids into separate viewing worlds, so broadcasters are surging ahead with the programming to exploit these new niche audiences – and deliver them in bulk to advertisers.

Digital nirvana could be an unsettling prospect.

Jonathan Leake is environment editor of the Sunday Times

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