Media: If Chris Smith is serious about making the benefits of the information age as widely available as quickly as possible, he may need to put government money where his mouth is - by subsidising the cost of digital set-top boxes

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The Independent Online
Is the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport losing his marbles? Worse, is Chris Smith going to lose Labour the next general election?

If you've been reading certain national newspapers recently, you may be starting to question the sanity, or at least the strategic wisdom, of the man charged with stewarding this country through the communications revolution.

The People's Party, we are told, is going to tell the people - on the eve of the next election - that they can no longer watch Coronation Street or EastEnders unless they fork out a few hundred quid.

For Chris Smith is so doo-lally about digital, it seems, that he is bent on confronting TV viewers with a stark choice within five years: purchase a brand new digital set or shell out pounds 200 for a set-top decoder to adapt digital signals into analogue format.

Don't adjust your sets. Yes, Mr Smith is keen to speed up the transition from analogue to digital. He made that clear 10 days ago in an address to the Royal Television Society's biennial convention in Cambridge. But there's no way he's going to jeopardise Tony's second term by pulling the plug on what is by far Britain's most popular leisure pursuit - watching the box.

There are 23 million TV households in the UK, with an average of two TV sets in each (a main set and a secondary one). Many families have more than two tellies. They have cathode-ray tubes flickering away in the lounge, the kitchen and kids' bedrooms. Render any of those appliances redundant and you risk a popular backlash far greater than the recent brouhaha about bloodsports.

"The Government is not going to upset vast numbers of people who cannot buy in immediately to the digital age," said one of the media minister's key advisers. "Not only would that be political folly. It would also be unacceptable to Chris Smith who has stressed on numerous occasions that he wants the information age to be for the many not the few."

This is true. Chris Smith stated in his Cambridge speech: "Broadcasting, as its very name implies, offers benefits to the many rather than the few. I want to ensure universal access to the current free-to-air public service channels, and I want that access as soon as possible to be through digital services."

Making the benefits of the information age as widely available as quickly as possible is a noble objective. But, if he is serious about making these grand aims a reality, Mr Smith may need to put government money where his mouth is by convincing his cabinet colleagues that the state should somehow subsidise the cost of digital set-top boxes.

For, even with an industry subsidy, the boxes are expected to cost around pounds 200 each. That is a horrendous sum for pensioners, the unemployed and low wage earners, the people who rely most on the cathode-ray tube to lighten the gloom of life on the breadline.

The men at the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport who are driving digital will not be allowed to lose sight of that fact. They will also be guided by a forthcoming report by the independent consultants Nera (National Economic Research Associates Ltd), which has been asked to examine the likely costs of three different timescales - five, 10 and 15 years - for the transition.

Hugh Peltor, director of Brema (the British Radio & Electronic Equipment Manufacturers Association), says: "I do not believe anyone in government or industry seriously considers a five-year simulcasting period as acceptable or practicable unless accompanied by very substantial supporting mechanisms." Brema does not expect such supporting mechanisms to be forthcoming and is banking on "simulcasting" of digital and analogue lasting for up to 10 or even 12 years.

But there is a small chance that even the most lily-livered Blairites could be persuaded to support a set-top subsidy. Chris Smith clearly believes so, for he subtly hinted in his Cambridge speech that he is considering such a subsidy. Subsidising set-top boxes would require only some of the considerable money that would pour into the Treasury coffers if it speeded up the transition to digital and sold off the existing analogue frequencies.

Whether the Treasury would be prepared to surrender part of this yield to ensure universal access to the multi-channel era is highly debatable. But one thing is sure: if anyone can win that argument it is Chris Smith. As he told TV executives in Cambridge: "I certainly regard television as a key element - if not the key element - in our national culture. Television is indeed at the heart of the main themes of my re-christened department. It is television that for many provides the main source of cultural excitement and the main window on what the nation and the world has to offer."

Mr Smith realises that he must also make the case on economic grounds. He did that fairly eloquently at Cambridge, telling the audience of TV execs: "The early transition to digital broadcasting will put the UK at the cutting edge of developing new services, including interactive services, as well as new technologies. Digital broadcasting should be regarded as a creative opportunity, providing a spur to British talent and innovation. It should provide an opportunity for Britain to make a valuable growing global communications revolution."

Let's hope that these arguments prove persuasive. Having secured a landslide victory by locking itself into a fiscal straitjacket, it could be that making it easier for everyone to savour the delights of digital TV is one of the few things this New Labour government does for the poor.