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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 12:12 GMT
Viewers told to return set-top boxes
ITV Digital box
How many people will actually return the box?
Former ITV Digital subscribers are to be asked to return their set-top boxes, or pay 39.99 to keep them.

The pay-TV service collapsed in May, after failing to win enough viewers, and went into liquidation in October.

This course of action is legally correct, but it further damages consumer confidence in digital TV

Allan Williams, Consumers' Association

Grant Thornton, the company brought in to wind up ITV Digital, is now trying to recoup some of the assets by calling in the boxes or asking users to pay for them.

But it admitted to having no idea how many people would actually comply with the request, while the Consumers' Association warned it could damage the popularity of digital television.

Pay back time?

At its peak, ITV Digital had 1.2m subscribers.

Malcolm Shierson from Grant Thornton told BBC Radio 5 Live that there were still an estimated 1.1m boxes "out in the subscriber population".

"We're hoping there's a number of those subscribers who take up our offer to buy the boxes," added Mr Shierson.

The first letters will be sent out this week, but using the ONDigital branding, the former name of ITV Digital.

Although ITV Digital has now collapsed, a number of subscribers are still able to use the set-top boxes to receive Freeview, a replacement service which offers 29 free channels.

'The box was on hire'

Mr Shierson said Grant Thornton would make no profit from the sale of the boxes, which cost ITV Digital "hundreds of pounds to buy in the first place".

This is another setback to the government's plans for digital switchover

Allan Williams, Consumers' Association

And he disputed claims that the boxes were given free as part of the original agreement and only to be paid for if the subscriber, not the service, cancelled the agreement.

"The box was given to people effectively on hire and had to be returned in circumstances where the subscriber ceased to subscribe or the service ceased."

However, Mr Shierson admitted that Grant Thornton had little solution if people refused to either return or pay for the box.

"A few people might take that view and we'll have to deal with them at the end of the process.

"In the first instance we're trying to deal with those people who want to either buy or return their box."

Damaging digital

But a spokesman for Grant Thornton told BBC News Online that customers who signed a subscriber contract and had not bought the box were "legally bound" to either return or pay for it.

"Anyone on that deal did not own the box," said the spokesman.

"They're effectively receiving (Freeview) on a box that doesn't belong to them."

However, the Consumers' Association said pursuing claims for the boxes could damage perception of the market.

Allan Williams, the association's senior policy adviser told BBC News Online: "This course of action is legally correct, but it further damages consumer confidence in digital TV.

"This is another setback to the government's plans for digital switchover."

Debts

ITV Digital collapsed after its parents, Granada and Carlton, spent more than 1bn on trying build an alternative service to BSkyB.

But it failed to match BSkyB's viewing figures, despite winning the expensive rights to broadcast Football League matches.

It left behind debts of about 1.25bn and attempts by the League to recoup its losses from Granada and Carlton failed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's John Moylan
"One million subscribers believed they were given a box for free"
Malcolm Shierson of Grant Thornton
"We want the boxes back"

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