Broadcasters line up to capture new digital audience

At some point next year, you will start being asked whether you have a set-top box in the same way you were once asked if you had a video and once that question starts arising, we will know digital television is upon us. Cathy Newman looks ahead to what is being dubbed the year of digital TV.

Whether you subscribe to digital terrestrial, satellite or cable television, you will need a box, costing around pounds 200, to unscramble the signals.

First off the block is digital satellite. BSkyB plans to go for a "soft launch" of between 150 and 200 channels next April. Many of BSkyB's initial digital subscribers are likely to be analogue customers who, by being offered a discounted set-top box, will have been persuaded to migrate.

Around 70 channels will be reserved for pay-per-view, where customers pay to watch specific films, sports or musical events. BSkyB has already launched a pay-per-view operation of sorts, although the extra capacity afforded by digital will allow the service to get off the ground in earnest. Cable & Wireless Communications, the biggest UK cable operator, has agreed to take Sky Box Office, the satellite broadcaster's pay-per-view service. Other cable companies - including NTL, Telewest Communications and General Cable - will form their own pay-per-view platform, called Front Row, and have been negotiating with Hollywood studios for film rights.

Roughly 10 of BSkyB's digital channels will be devoted to British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB), owned by BSkyB, BT, Matsushita Electric, and Midland Bank. BIB will provide transactional services, such as home shopping and banking, and other interactive devices.

Digital cable is to get going around the same time as BSkyB. CWC, as part of its pay-per-view deal, has pledged to kick off its digital services at the same time as BSkyB.

However, NTL is one of many cable companies to be coy about launch-dates. It is clearer, though, about what it intends to offer. Jeremy Thorp, group director of digital services at NTL says: "We're very driven by the interactive nature of the technology."

NTL aims to deliver the Internet to the mass-market. Mr Thorp believes cable's capacity will persuade many people frustrated by the Internet's slowness to get online. "Cable can deliver information very quickly down the fibre-optic network." NTL is planning to offer its customers access to certain sections of the Internet - what's known as a "walled garden", as it will filter out undesirable material such as pornography.

NTL will, like BSkyB, have between 150 and 200 channels, although Mr Thorp casts doubt on the satellite broadcaster's promises. "I don't believe Sky will have as many as us," he says.

Other cable companies are approaching the issue of interactivity rather differently. Telewest Communications has not ruled out taking services from BIB instead of creating its own interactive systems, and, as a spokesman explains: "We are concentrating on our core products for digital. Interactive services have a part to play, but cable penetration will not lift immeasurably as a result."

But according to Mathew Horsman, media analyst at Henderson Crosthwaite, interactivity could be the new driver of pay-TV. Where sport and movies - the premium services - have up until now prompted people to sign up to cable and satellite, a new unique selling point needs to be found. "Interactive services will be a driver and could be viewed as the new premium," Mr Horsman maintains.

The six multiplexes - bunches of frequencies - reserved for digital terrestrial television fall into two parts: three for British Digital Broadcasting, the pay-TV group, and three for free-to-air broadcasters. BDB, which is owned by Carlton Communications and Granada, maintains it will kick off in the second half of next year, buoyed by a "substantial" advertising budget. However, as the European Commission has only just granted the consortium its licence, some analysts are increasingly sceptical that the service will launch on time. BDB is focusing on entertainment rather than interactivity, and is offering 12 basic channels and three premium ones.

The involvement of Carlton and Granada in BDB has depressed the two companies' share-prices, as digital terrestrial TV is an unknown quantity. Whereas digital satellite exists in other countries such as the US, Spain and Italy, digital terrestrial is not up and running anywhere in the world. BDB's saving grace, though, will be the Government's determination to switch off the analogue technology and make digital terrestrial work.

As far as free-to-air digital television is concerned, ITV is simulcasting its analogue channel on digital, and is creating a second national service, which will be complementary to ITV.

The BBC, Channel 5 and Channel 4 will simulcast their analogue channels in wide-screen technology. Channel 5, however, is hoping to attract an investor to buy into its spare digital capacity, as it is not keen to spend money on new digital programming.

One of the crucial determinants of the success of digital television will be how viewers find their way around the mass of extra channels. Electronic programme guides (EPGs) - electronic versions of the Radio Times - are being heralded as the answer to any difficulties navigating the multi-channel universe.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine