Greg Dyke on Broadcasting
Some of us simply don't want to embrace the digital age
Monday 19 September 2005
But just as the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, was making this important policy announcement in an assured keynote speech at the Royal Television Society's bi-annual Cambridge conference on Friday, I had an heretical thought. Why are we doing this?
It was heretical because I've been an active supporter of digital switchover for as long as I can remember and, as one of the people responsible for the creation of Freeview, I played a significant part in making it possible. If charged with aiding and abetting digital switchover I'd have to plead guilty.
So why this sudden doubt just as Ms Jowell was outlining how switchover was going to happen? The answer is it's all to do with my 90-year-old mother.
Let me explain. I recently bought her a new Bang & Olufsen television set. I expected her to be pleased and excited. Sadly, she was no such thing. When it arrived my mother burst into tears because she didn't want that much change in her life.
Now, if that's how she reacted to the arrival of a new television set and having to learn how to use a new remote control, how is she possibly going to cope with digital switchover? Who is going to convince her and thousands of old people like her that, in the interests of greater viewing choice (choice that she has made very clear to me she doesn't want), her viewing life will be totally disrupted?
Who is going to fit the set-top boxes on to her two televisions? Who is going to teach her how to use them and, most important of all, who will sort them out when they go wrong, as they inevitably will? And who is going to explain to her that her video recorder won't record any more because of switchover?
Even Tessa Jowell admitted in her Cambridge speech that the process of going digital is going to be as disruptive to Britain as decimalisation and the conversion to North Sea gas. In which case, why are we doing it?
I scoured Tessa's speech for an explanation. I discovered that there was an economic reason - the old analogue spectrum could be sold she reckoned, for between £1 and £2 billion. But the real cost of switchover will be vastly more than that with all of us having to buy countless set-top boxes. When the Government proudly boasts that Britain is already 63 per cent digital, they seem to forget that in most of those digital homes there are also a lot of analogue sets that will need set-top boxes to make them work in the future.
But according to Tessa the decision wasn't really about money at all; it was about better quality television and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone to have more choice. But what if, like my mum, you don't want more choice? No doubt Ms Jowell has ways of making her want it - after all, that's what New Labour is all about, forcing market choice upon those who don't necessarily want it.
Given that Freeview and the new ITV/BBC joint venture Freesat mean that everyone who wants to go digital can do so at very little ongoing cost, why force those who don't want to?
To be fair, the Government did run a trial project in two villages in Wales where 99.2 per cent of the population voted to keep digital television once they had tried it, but there were probably more television engineers in those villages for the period of the trial than there were villagers, so conversion would have been easy.
Tessa also announced in Cambridge that there is going to be an increase in the BBC licence fee to help pay for set-top boxes for the over-75s like my mum, which in itself is a bit strange, given that the licence fee is an unfair tax with the poor paying as much as the rich. This means we are now going to disproportionately tax the poor to help the elderly, some of whom are not poor at all. An odd concept of socialism.
But just as soon as it had arrived my heretical thought disappeared. I remembered all the arguments I'd used over the years to argue in favour of switchover. Banal arguments like digital is good for us, it's progress (and we can't let my mum stand in the way of progress), and just think how expensive it would be for the likes of the BBC, ITV and Channels Four and Five if they had to continue broadcasting in both analogue and digital?
Suddenly I was back as a switchover supporter, a digital loyalist - but for a brief second I was nearly lost to the cause.
One deputy head that's happy to roll
There are some laws of business that can be summed up in easy catchphrases. One is that the biggest lie in business is the phrase "I'm from head office and I'm here to help you", but my favourite has always been "we are in crisis, deputy heads must roll". We saw an example of the latter in ITV last weekwith the news that the head of ITV advertising sales Graham Duff was leaving, pushed out by those above him who needed someone to blame for the collapsing ratings, depressing sales and falling share price. Duff left with a pile of money, but the funniest side of the story is that he's delighted. He has hated the job for some time, and has been looking for another job for months. It was a win/win for him.
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