Such a foolish vision of the future

'The Government is now having to suck on the awful fact that it is Rupert Murdoch, not them, who is in charge'
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The Independent Online

What a nation of ingrates Britain is. Many, many people are working very, very hard to make this country information technology's 21st century superpower. All we, the punters, have to do is to embrace digital television. But we are being stubborn. Far too many of us are refusing to join in.

Our Government is itching for us to vault over the pixelated rainbow. Partly in a spirit of nannyish threat, partly in a spirit of blind, foolish optimism, they promised that by 2010 we wouldn't have any choice in the matter anyway, because there would be no analogue television signal left for us to receive. We were not impressed.

And today, as another angel falls from the path to screen heaven, it looks like we were right. The collapse of ITV Digital is the latest of many setbacks in the drive to drag us away from analogue telly. It leaves the Government's grand-sounding dreams in some jeopardy.

Come 2010, we were all to be glued to the set, watching, listening, interacting and generally being futuristic and dynamic, and the analogue channels were to be sold off. This would have been a welcome source of free money for a government that has nothing much left to sell. Now, instead, there must be frantic effort to get things moving.

To this end, Mr Blair has even hired one of his trusted old friends to be in charge of persuading us all to go digital. Barry Cox will be explaining to us all, over the coming months, that we're just being a bunch of curmudgeonly old luddites and that it won't, won't do. That'll add a few more millions to the state's out-of-control advertising budget. The free money is beginning to look as though it might turn out to be cripplingly expensive. Isn't everything these days?

The obvious reason for the collapse of ITV Digital, if one gets down to specifics, is that ITV Digital spent far too much money securing coverage of football no one much wanted to watch. Cue much relish-ridden reports into how some games were watched by so few people that it would have been cheaper to catch them all young, put them all through sports kindergarten, let the best of them cut their teeth in the schoolboy league and eventually get a few teams together to play the fixtures themselves. The only trouble is that there would still have been no one in the audience to watch.

Industry pundits have a little phrase to describe our spoilsport reticence. They call it "viewer apathy". I love "viewer apathy". I think it's a fabulous concept. I just don't know how it works. Are they all suggesting that there are too many people out there who are too apathetic to watch television? Isn't television what you do when you're too apathetic to do anything else? Couldn't the truth be that the problem-people are those who are not actually apathetic enough to want yet more television channels giving them yet more reasons not to move off the sofa?

Or maybe I see it that way because I'm part of the problem. According to Gavyn Davies, the "southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged and well-educated" expect too much of television. These people just aren't apathetic enough to sit down, pay out their money and take what they're given. When they watch television, they want it to be because there's something really good on. They are just too damned aspirational to bother to be a passive part of the dynamic technological revolution just because it sounds good (ostensibly) when Mr Blair says so.

Which brings us to another contradiction in terms. How can it be that the way to create a smart, savvy, demanding nation of hip, high-earning, sophisticated consumers of technology, leisure, culture, food, travel, fashion, tourism, luxury, health, gardens, interiors, cars and so forth, is to get them all sitting down in front of the television for every minute they're not at work?

The answer is, it can't. Engaged and active people just watch telly when they haven't got anything else on. Viewers and apathy are made for each other. It's lack of viewer apathy the digital revolutionaries have to combat.

And anyway, on that measure we're already the most apathetic nation in the entire world anyway. No country has a higher uptake of digital television than this one. In a country riven by its inability to get the "work-life balance" right, you could be forgiven for thinking that digital television is actually doing reasonably well.

But that would be overlooking one important factor. All that's doing reasonably well is BSkyB. Having placed so much faith in digital television as the technology that would make Britain into a world leader, the Government is now having to suck on the awful fact that it's Rupert Murdoch, not them, who's in charge.

The situation is spookily similar to the one predicted by the independent television mandarins back in the Eighties, before digital had been talked up, and before Margaret Thatcher's money-spinning deregulation of the airwaves had even begun. Back then the television mandarins – Barry Cox surely among them – predicted falling standards presided over by Mr Murdoch. Since then, more than two decades of effort has gone into resisting the inevitable. Now the resistance is becoming desperate.

Yet all those who scratch their heads and grumble about viewer apathy still don't get it. Mr Murdoch is successful in selling his service because he targets it at people who can't get enough television. They want films, they want sports, they want trashy shows, they want The Simpsons.

They want all the things that television can offer, and on Sky they find all the things that television does most easily, either by buying in the quality crowd-pleasers, investing next to nothing in the commissioned stuff and sticking to the tried-and-tested mass-market formulas.

He's not insisting to his viewers that they've got to change their gear, or berating his potential viewers about their "apathy". He's just waiting for it all to fall, belly-up, into his lap, while the others, even public-service broadcasting, all make the mistake of trying to beat him at his own game.

And they do continue to make that mistake. ITV Digital may have thought it was doing a BSkyB by buying in the football. But what it didn't realise was that the good telly football had already been snapped up. The football it bought is suitable for people looking for a live experience, and the sooner television and football come to terms with this, the better things will be for both.

All this government stuff, about how there must be this many people watching this sort of channel using that sort of delivery system by such and such a date, in order to make Britain this or that kind of a country is all ludicrous. How can the Government believe for one second that flogging packages of television channels will foster a change in society? They are clutching at straws.

Yes, television was an amazing invention. Yes, it did change us. And, yes, we couldn't get enough of it for half a century. However, I'm sure that it was like that with fire, too.

Yes, the nation once gathered round television shows and hailed them as an almost mystical shared experience. But now we've settled back into the idea of sharing such things in the older ways. Like when solar eclipses happen, or wars break out. Other things will have to be done in the older ways as well. Like forging genuine change in society by introducing elements that really are radical, rather than hoping that, if enough set-top boxes get sold, then social revolution will come too.

d.orr@independnet.co.uk

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