Big switch to digital TV put off until 2010

Broadcasting counter-revolution » Viewers want to stick with old-style sets
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Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has admitted the Government will have to delay switching off the 70-year-old analogue television signal until at least 2010 because millions of UK households do not want digital TV.

More than 11.5 million adults – a quarter of all consumers – say nothing will ever persuade them to replace voluntarily their traditional five-station service with digital sets or boxes.

The emergence of a hard-core "refusenik" group has been underlined further by retail figures revealing that, despite a mini-boom in the number of new TV sets sold over the Christmas period, only a fraction of these was digital. Industry estimates suggest that, of the two million televisions sold so far during December and January, around 40,000 were equipped for multi-channel transmissions.

Signs that the much-touted "digital revolution" is failing to inspire the British public have led ministers privately to admit defeat in their mission to convert the whole country to multi-channel TV within the next five years.

In what amounts to the Government's clearest hint yet that it could be prepared to put back the analogue switch-off from the preferred date of 2006 to 2010, Ms Jowell said: "I would expect, with the present rate of take-up, that there will be a point in 2006/2007 where we will have a clear sense of the size of, if you like, the refusenik group: the people who are disinterested.

"We will then, as well as the broadcasting industry, as well as the members of the technological end of the industry, engage with them in why they don't want it and what will make them want it, but this has got to be an act of gentle persuasion." Ms Jowell added that it was important the public did not feel they were being "bullied" into having "something they didn't want".

Another minister revealed that TV executives had privately disclosed they would be happy for the switch-off to be delayed even further, provided the Government put them out of their uncertainty by setting a firm date as soon as possible. "The industry has told us that it would prefer a clear date, even if it means delaying until after 2010," the minister said.

At present, only 40 per cent of the British public has access to digital TV, and ministers have always maintained they will never switch off the analogue signal until 95 per cent has been converted. But some government sources believe many households are deliberately holding out in the belief that one day they will be given free set-top boxes, an offer Ms Jowell has so far declined to make.

The new findings on attitudes towards multi-channel TV, revealed in the latest quarterly survey by media analysts Ipsos-RSL, mirror those of a Consumers' Association survey compiled last year.

They come as the latest viewing figures for digital households reveal a slump in ratings for non-terrestrial stations. Overall audience share in digital households for channels other than the five terrestrial ones fell from 48.1 per cent in December 2000 to 45.1 per cent last month.

Digital TV has a range of advantages over its analogue cousin. In addition to offering viewers far more channels to choose from, it boasts clearer picture definition, surround sound, and an increasing number of home computer-like services including email and internet access.

Despite this, it has yet to grab the nation's imagination fully, and its plight is being compounded by the growing plethora of alternatives to traditional ways of viewing films and television programmes. DVD players have revolutionised the art of video-watching by allowing them to be played on home computers, while consumers also have access to a range of such hi-tech inventions as TiVo, a device that enables programmes to be recorded without the use of tapes.

A growing number of digital channels is fighting to stay on air in the face of poor viewing figures and low to non-existent advertising revenue. In addition to long-running mainstream stalwarts such as Sky One, Granada Plus, UK Gold and MTV, consumers now have a choice of hundreds of esoteric stations, at least 300 of which transmit from Britain.

However, while some, such as the History Channel and the family-orientated Baby Channel, have managed to find a niche audience, others are struggling. BSkyB's .TV and The Money Channel, a station launched by former singer Adam Faith, have ceased broadcasting, while the Carlton Taste Network recently attracted ratings as near to nothing as it is possible to record for cookery show Taste Today, fronted by Anthea Turner.

Despite this, the number and range of niche channels continue to proliferate at a prodigious rate. Recent additions include The Christian Children's Channel, The Footballer's Football Channel and The Baby Channel, while only last week communications company Viacom announced plans for a station aimed at gay viewers.

Sound and vision in the home

Satellite: Introduced in Britain 12 years ago by BSkyB, roof-top "mini-dishes" pick up images and soundwaves via orbiting satellites, and beam them into homes via set-top boxes.

Cable: TV signals transmitted via underground cables, again into a set-top box or digital TV.

Terrestrial: Pioneered in 1948 in Pennsylvania as a means of solving TV reception problems, this enables signals to be transmitted via overland cables to roof-top aerials.

TiVo: VCR without the need for tape. TiVo is able to "save" television programmes on to its hard drive.

DVD: With its superb picture quality, surround sound, and huge disc capacity, the digital versatile disc has become a firm favourite with film fans.

VCR: Developed in the 1970s, it records and plays back TV programmes on magnetic tape.