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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 11:52 GMT
Digital horror stories
By media correspondent Nick Higham

From time to time this column attracts feedback from readers, but my thoughts last week on digital TV seem to have struck an unprecedented nerve.

In the past few days I've received more e-mails than ever before and readers seemed anxious for someone to share their pain.

Clearly ITV Digital has disappointed many, and it is difficult getting digital receivers just to watch the free-to-view channels.

Jay Butler says he has failed to find anyone willing to sell him an ITV Digital box without a subscription.

'Inferior'

He said: "All the retailers informed me they were forbidden from selling them (by ITV Digital)." He also questions claims that digital offers a better-quality picture.

Martin Davies says he only uses his ITV Digital receiver for channels he can't get through his analogue receiver because the picture quality is "vastly inferior" to a good quality analogue service.

"I know other people who get terrestrial digital, both via set-top boxes and with integrated digital TVs. They all find the digital picture quality inferior as well," he writes.

He says he'll be returning his set-top box once his subscription runs out.

ITV boss David Liddiment is hoping for more subscribers
ITV boss David Liddiment is hoping for more subscribers
Lewis Graham lives in Stevenage, in line of sight of the Crystal Palace transmitter and with excellent analogue TV reception, yet has been told he cannot receive ITV Digital.

"Will the analogue signal be switched off in 2006? Not unless the private company that used to be the BBC transmitter department is paid by central government to cover the UK properly," he suggests.

In fact, the government last year doubled the power of eight of ITV Digital's main transmitters, and is currently experimenting with further power increases in a bid to overcome problems with picture quality.

Cost

Jim Nelmes highlights one of the biggest obstacles to analogue switch-off in 2006 or 2010.

"The fundamental problem for broadcasters and government, if they want to turn off analogue in seven years time, is that the millions of us who have additional small sets around the house (we have three) do not want to spend money on a decoder box for each and an expensive aerial system to feed them."

This, combined with the high number of people simply uninterested in digital, is a significant problem.

It helps to explain the growing scepticism within the television industry about whether switch-off is ever going to be achievable without massive government intervention - in the form of huge subsidies for digital receivers, perhaps, or banning the sale of analogue-only TVs.

Digital incentive: New Friends series showing first on E4
Digital incentive: New Friends series showing first on E4
Eoin MacDonald says he thinks digital and multi-channel TV are a waste of money.

Last year he bought a new analogue TV. Since his previous sets lasted for 14 and 21 years respectively he clearly isn't expecting to switch to digital anytime soon.

Tim Watson says his cable company is unable to supply digital services to homes in MDUs (that's Multiple Dwelling Units - or blocks of flats to you - in which 20% of the population live).

The government obviously thinks this is a problem too - last week it published a leaflet advising landlords on the different ways of installing digital TV in their premises.

Offers

Last week's column highlighted the difficulties involved in finding affordable receivers if all you wanted was to watch the free-to-view digital channels.

Paul Deacon claims some retailers are still offering free boxes and 100 installation even to non-subscribers until 19 January. Simon Still says Sky's free offer is still being advertised on its website.

On the other hand if you simply want the free-to-air channels you can do what Geoff Rimmer recommends and what staff in Dixons recently suggested to me - get Sky Digital or ITV Digital with a subscription, but ring up to cancel the sub after the first month.

Presumably Dixons staff recommend this as a way of both satisfying customers who only want free-to-view digital channels and safeguarding their commissions on the sale of subscription systems!

Or you could wait until set manufacturers have got low-cost receivers onto the market.

Pace is promising a 130 receiver (upgradeable to a pay-TV receiver) on sale by the spring.

Risk

Finally Robert Mansell raises a rather different issue.

He asks why viewers should have to put up with "fully-fledged commercials" for BBC programmes and services - something we're going to see a lot of in the coming year as the new digital services are launched.

"The BBC risks shooting itself in the foot," he writes. "If viewers and listeners are used to seeing BBC adverts in between their favourite programmes, why should they be resistant to cutting the licence fee in return for a proportion of commercial advertising on the BBC?"

And he also points to the complaints from the BBC's commercial rivals at the use of licence fee money to launch services which compete with commercial channels.


E-mail: nick.higham@bbc.co.uk

A version of this article appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

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