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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Digital: Booming or doomed?
Digital equipment
There have been mixed reactions to the digital age
By the BBC's media correspondent Torin Douglas

The confusion over digital broadcasting has been highlighted by the retailer Dixons.

"We are moving into an era of absolute confusion because digital TV is so complex," director of technical development, Danny Churchill, told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference.

It is an issue that throws the BBC's plans for new digital TV and radio services into sharp focus.

Some commercial broadcasters urged the government to curb the BBC's digital ambitions.

But others believe the new licence fee-funded channels are the best hope of encouraging the whole country to go digital.

The Consumers' Association grabbed headlines when it warned the government its plans to switch the nation to digital television by the year 2010 - and turn off the current analogue signals - were "fatally flawed" and must be delayed.

Its research showed a third of those who don't have digital TV said they would never get it.

New channels

But the Independent Television Commission has reported that digital TV is growing faster than expected.

It is now in 6.5 million homes - 30% of the total - and the ITC forecasts that will grow to 40% by the end of this year.

Last year, it licensed no fewer than 116 new digital channels, ranging from Artsworld to The Community Channel, which carries charity messages, and MBI - the UK's first African-Caribbean channel.

So which view is correct?

Is digital booming or doomed?

Both versions are right.

There is a growing "digital divide" between those who are embracing the new technology (and cannot get enough of it) and those whom it leaves cold, because they either do not want or cannot afford to invest in digital TV, or are simply too confused to bother.

Now the government and the industry are trying to ensure the rapid growth of digital TV does not come to a juddering halt.

National body

Carlton and Granada - which own the ONdigital terrestrial TV company - have begun a TV campaign, highlighting the difference between analogue and digital TV sets.

It will promote a new kitemark-style label - Digital Video Broadcasting - as part of an initiative from the Department of Trade & Industry.

Meanwhile, digital radio - coming from a long way behind - has set up a new national body to promote the developing medium.

There are only about 30,000 digital radios in the UK, though millions more people can pick up the extra digital stations via a Sky Digital satellite dish or online.

The Digital Radio Development Bureau hopes to convince manufacturers and consumers the medium is worth investing in.

Choice

And that's where the BBC's proposed new digital services come in.

It wants to launch four new TV channels and five new radio stations, all funded by the recent increase in the licence fee, to broaden the choice available to digital viewers and listeners.

The services must be approved by Culture Secretary Chris Smith.

The new TV channels would include two aimed at children - one for pre-school children, the other for the 6-13s.

And two existing digital channels - BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge would be renamed BBC Three, offering youth-oriented programmes, and BBC Four, an arts and culture channel.

The radio stations are a black urban music network, two stations based largely on the BBC archives (one music, one speech), the Asian Network, which currently broadcasts locally and via satellite TV boxes, and Five Live Sports Extra, bringing greater choice of sports, when matches clash.

Commercial broadcasters have complained the BBC's channels will compete unfairly with their own services, and say it should alter its plans so make them less 'popular', more 'public service'.

The BBC insists its proposed services are very different from the commercial channels.

The ball is now firmly in Chris Smith's court.

See also:

22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Television storms satellite frontiers
17 Jan 01 | Business
Ondigital fights for growth
18 Jan 01 | Entertainment
Public consulted on BBC digital plans
22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
What is digital TV?
22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Turning digital dreams into reality
22 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Digital revolution starts here
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