Switching to Digital Television: UK Public Policy and the Market

Simon Forge (SCF Associates Ltd)


ISSN: 1463-6697

Article publication date: 27 June 2008



Forge, S. (2008), "Switching to Digital Television: UK Public Policy and the Market", info, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 74-75. https://doi.org/10.1108/14636690810887553



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is about the process for switching off analogue TV in Britain by 2012 or whatever is the latest target date, to replace it with its digital TV form (DTV). A blockbuster of a read, it is a thrilling ride from cover to cover (if you are into the politics of digital anything in the UK). With encyclopaedic detail, it covers the history of the UK terrestrial DTV initiative from the 1990s and from a particular non‐worm's eye‐view of the whole political and industry landscape in all directions, and from fairly high up. In managing the UK DTV Project from 2002 to 2004 on behalf of the UK government, Michael Starks lived in authoritative intensity with the confused politics and business cases, problems of pay TV trials, late roll‐out policies, early bankruptcies, spectrum allocation battles, market apathy, ministerial mayhem, the BBC and other unhelpful committees.

Broadcast media in the UK have always been closely under the eye of successive governments, especially the telly over the last 40 years. Its power to opiate or infuriate the masses was swiftly realised to be far greater than steam radio. So any developments that might disturb it are purely political acts. It is not surprising that in 2003 Ofcom gave back the largest slice of spectrum (some 265 MHz) that could have been released from the analogue switchover, for no clear and good reason, except its masters' fears of the media industry. Switchover is never going to be a popular policy and so the politicians heed the broadcasters when they say they need more spectrum for more channels (digital this time) as has already occurred in Germany. The ultimate great aim is stop unwilling consumers becoming hostile, vocal voters.

So touche pas au télé has been the watchword of prime ministers, and with a darkening spectre of a failed analogue switchover, we have the story of attempts at careful preparation and public image preening, so that hopefully, it does not go the same way as Prestel and its mosaic. The arbitrary decision to compel the half of the UK population that did not have some form of DTV by 2003 to take it in preparation for switchover in 2008‐2012 was even written into the 2005 Labour manifesto.

Shipwrecks, train crashes, politics and the market

Wonderful tales of commercial woes stain the pages with all the unusual suspects – NTL, ITV Digital, Carlton, Granada, BSkyB, etc. – mixing dangerously with this child of New Labour, the digital switchover, presumably because it sounded like a good idea at the time in Downing Street.

The amazing advantages of high definition (HDTV) are paraded and, in my view, are found wanting – except that it could compensate for any released spectrum from the switchover, and ensure that nobody but the broadcast industry gets it. Effectively HDTV would be better handled on CATV or satellite, but that is not the story the UK government and its broadcasters want to sell. HDTV is hungry for bandwidth, but with suitable signal processing it can be supported in far less spectrum than is often advertised, with the latest versions of the MPEG‐4 protocols.

The book also looks at other countries' efforts in this domain, especially the USA and its HDTV ventures, and Japan in some detail. This was where DTV was viewed as the basis of better quality, with migration to HDTV, as both countries suffered under the USA's broadcast system, never twice same colour (NTSC). Europe is covered briefly, with The Netherlands being the DTV leader in the EU – most engaging as terrestrial TV is of no interest to the Dutch – 92 percent have CATV. Italy is also riveting as a political media minefield.

A most interesting finale is the analysis of policy in moving to a digital switchover, using lessons from the UK and round the world to try to eliminate surprises. With risk assessment, and all the preparation from regulation, to subsidisation, public persuasion, organisation, to implementation planning, it covers the preparation trail for a digital switchover. In sum, a pot‐boiler of a read.

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