The TV choice we will not buy

Steven Barnett is sceptical about the `digital revolution'

So, by the end of next year there'll be a "30-channel revolution" in television, and "viewing will never be the same again" - say some of the less excitable headlines from the last 10 days.

Sounds familiar? In the early Eighties, government and press alike hailed the revolutionary potential of cable to connect every household in the country to a cornucopia of channel choice by the end of the decade (that decade, not this one). In the late Eighties, front-page headlines (and not just in Rupert Murdoch's papers) trumpeted the start of another revolution as Sky launched its four-channel satellite service. And recently, the information superhighway has been heralded as a cure-all for everything from an ageing political system to long queues in supermarkets. And now ... digital television.

The media love revolutions because they are good stories, and governments love them because they can bask in the reflected glory of technological progress. It's nonsense, of course. There will be no revolution this time, either, for the same reason that there was neither a cable nor a satellite revolution: most of us don't want to pay for more television.

Let's take a cool, level-headed look at the facts.

1. There's limited demand for more TV. Independent Television Commission (ITC) surveys reveal that around two-thirds of the population agree that "the four main broadcast channels give me all the viewing choices I want". But, as politicians have learnt on taxes, what people say is not necessarily the same as what they do. So ...

2. Even where people are offered lots more channels, four out of five homes aren't interested. Cable has been going for more than 10 years now, but latest figures from the ITC show that, up to October last year, 21 per cent of those passed by cable had taken up the offer. Hardly a mad dash.

3. Perhaps cable hasn't marketed itself aggressively enough? The same can hardly be said of satellite, which has had continuous publicity in Murdoch's News International titles since its launch in 1989. After eight years of hype, fewer than 4 million homes have satellite dishes.

4. This time, we are told, it is different: no need for a satellite dish or cable connection. You just "plug in and watch". But hang on. What's the difference between buying a digital conversion box from a retailer (at least pounds 200) to plug in yourself, and a set-top box from a cable company (maximum pounds 50, free in some areas) which they plug in for you? A better picture, yes, but it's hardly the stuff of revolution.

The missing ingredient here is money. Three-quarters of us have shown that we are not willing to pay more than the annual 90 quid licence fee. In all the digital hype of the last 10 days, one small item of information managed to escape into the small print: the "basic" subscription package for the additional channels is likely to be "around pounds l5" - excluding the premium movie and Sky sports channels. Why should millions of us suddenly be prepared to pay nearly pounds 200 a year for more TV, just because the means of distribution is over the air rather than under the ground?

From this perspective, the competition for the terrestrial digital licence looks a little different. British Digital Broadcasting is an immensely impressive alliance between two forces that virtually run British commercial television already: Carlton Granada and BSkyB. With the BBC committed too, it would be a brave regulator which gave them the thumbs down, particularly when the technology minister Ian Taylor could barely contain his glee that "the major players are now at the table".

But what they are offering is simply more television, at a cost that most British viewers have already rejected. Their competitor, CableTel's Digital Television Network (DTN), appears to be offering a different vision, based around interactivity and data services.

The DTN bid offers investment problems, with two major backers withdrawing. It also suffers from not being part of the broadcasting establishment. But don't write them off. When the ITC adjudicates on what may be in the best long-term interest of consumers, I hope it takes a good look at the take-up rate for traditional, subscription-based TV services. And whoever wins, don't hold your breath for the revolutionn

Steven Barnett, co-author of `The Battle for the BBC', is senior lecturer in communications at the University of Westminster.

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