TV chiefs are warned on cost of digital sets

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The Independent Online
BROADCASTERS WILL be told today that the Government will not allow a total switch-over to digital television unless it is convinced that viewers, particularly those on low incomes, will be able to afford the sets.

If television chiefs manage to reassure government, the digital switch will take place in just over 10 years' time.

In a speech at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Chris Smith, is expected to spell out a consumers' charter. Leading television figures, such as the outgoing BBC director general Sir John Birt and his successor Greg Dyke, will be in the audience. Mr Smith is likely to say that 2010 will be the Government's date for the end of analogue television - meaning that digital TV with its requisite set-top boxes will then be the only option for viewers.

But he will make clear that, while he believes the digital revolution can bring immense benefits, the interests of viewers and consumers must be given priority. Mr Smith will say there are consumer tests that must be passed before he will authorise the analogue turn-off.

The first is that more than 99 per cent of the population must be able to receive digital signals. The second is that 95 per cent of the population should have digital TV equipment in the home; a big shift, as at present only 6 per cent of the population has digital equipment.

Finally, Mr Smith will say digital equipment must be affordable for people on low fixed incomes such as pensions.

He will add that there will be a "rolling review" by government of how these consumer tests are being met in the run-up to the switch-over. If they are not being met satisfactorily, then he will not hesitate to delay the analogue turn-off.

The BBC, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with more digital programming. Its new plans include: a BBC channel for young children; an online news service for schools, reflecting the curriculum; new digital radio services, including a station purely for black music; more coverage of the devolved assemblies and the European Parliament on BBC Parliament; and services that bring together the best of the BBC's output in certain subjects such as natural history, providing further opportunities to watch the best programmes.

t Soap operas "unify the nation" better than any government can, the BBC's head of drama series, Mal Young, said yesterday. The man responsible for BBC1's EastEnders was responding to "snobbery" against the most popular programmes.

Mr Young, who used to steer Channel 4's Brookside and Channel 5's Family Affairs, was delivering the Huw Wheldon memorial lecture to the convention. He said: "Soaps aredoing more to break down social and class boundaries than any government could ever do."

The lecture will be broadcast on BBC2 on 18 October.