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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 16:06 GMT
Digital difficulties ahead for TV
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

So ITV has bitten the bullet and signed up with Sky Digital.

ITV1 - and its sibling channel ITV2 - appeared for the first time on satellite last Wednesday, at a net cost of 13m.

Sky viewers at last have something more entertaining on Channel 103 of their electronic programme guide than a message telling them to switch back to analogue if they want to watch ITV.

The move was forced on the folk in Grays Inn Road because their audience was suffering.

All terrestrial channels enjoy a lower share of viewing in digital homes - but ITV gets hammered most.

Viewers

There are two possible explanations for this.

One is that the typical ITV viewer is more attracted to the sort of thing offered on digital satellite, like movies and sport, than the typical BBC or Channel 4 viewer. The other is that not having ITV on the Sky EPG was a significant barrier to viewing.

Watching TV
ITV has been suffering in multi-channel households
Either way, ITV's advertisers had started to cut up rough about all those viewers they weren't reaching.

The move also marks an admission by ITV that its own digital platform is never going to compete with Sky's.

Withholding ITV from Sky was meant to give ITV Digital a boost and reduce the attractions of Sky Digital.

It didn't work. The latest quarterly report on digital TV by Continental Research puts digital penetration at one-third of UK households - of which Sky accounts for 66%, digital cable for 22% and ITV Digital for just 12%.

Future intentions

However Continental's figures reveal that the future is likely to be difficult for all the digital platforms. The growth in digital penetration in the second two quarters of this year was significantly lower than at any time in the previous two years.

Digital TV equipment
It may take an analogue switch-off to force viewers to digital TV
Continental's survey of people's future intentions was also discouraging.

The numbers saying they definitely intend to subscribe to multichannel television have fallen from 20% in September last year to around 10% this year.

Though there were signs of a slight improvement in September - enough for Continental to suggest that digital apathy may have bottomed out - the researchers still reckon the market is running out of steam and that once 50% penetration is reached "further catalysts" will be needed to persuade the rest of us to convert.

Continental thinks greater promotion of free-to-air digital channels might persuade more older viewers to switch - which could be important, given that the over-65s are the least likely to say they want digital.

But the biggest "catalyst" of all would be a date fixed by government for analogue switch-off.

Just don't hold your breath.

This column also appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

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