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Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 14:58 GMT
Tempting the digital refuseniks
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Nick Higham
By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent
line

Every week sees some new development - technological, commercial or political - in the world of digital television, and every time I write about digital or about broadband in my regular column here on BBC News Online I get a large amount of e-mail from you, the users.

There is clearly a lot of interest in the subject, not to mention a lot of confusion and a great deal of strongly-held opinion.

So we've decided to create a regular "digital watch" column, in addition to my regular weekly pieces.


BBC Choice is a choice to turn off and go to the pub

Alex Keenleyside, ITV digital viewer
Recent feedback to earlier articles offers a reminder of how high a hill the government has to climb to persuade "digital refuseniks" to embrace the new technology, especially if it is to meet its target of switching off analogue transmissions by 2010.

Alex Keenleyside is an ITV Digital viewer who won't be renewing his subscription.

"I don't want to surf the net or play games, I want to watch TV - and there's nothing but crappy repeats," he writes.

'Rubbish'

"The BBC channels are the worst of the lot," he adds.

Christopher Price
Pub call? Christopher Price on BBC Choice
"BBC Choice is a choice to turn off and go to the pub."

He's one of those who believes there isn't enough good television about to fill more than a small number of channels.

Graham Ruddock, who has two young children aged three and five resents being, as he sees it, forced into getting BBC children's digital channel CBeebies.

"Over the past couple of weekends the BBC have virtually removed young children's TV from the analogue network and certainly their favourite characters," he writes.

"This smacks of trying to force us into getting digital TV and I certainly believe this is contrary to its public service broadcast obligations."

'Conspiratorial ring'

Angellica Bell
Face of CBBC: Presenter Angellica Bell
A more encouraging response - from the point of view of the government and the broadcasting establishment - comes from James Pickering.

He's a father who is just now thinking about dipping his toe into the digital "ocean of choice", encouraged by the availability shortly of the 100 Pace digital adapter.

In the past, he says, he has been vociferous in his dislike of having to pay to watch sport in general, and test cricket in particular.

I've also had e-mails from two people who help shed light on a problem which burst dramatically into the news last week: the "hacking" of ITV smartcards.

Last week Canal Plus Technologies, which makes ITV Digital smartcards, announced it was suing NDS, which makes Sky Digital smartcards, alleging NDS broke its codes and deliberately leaked them, resulting in a flood of counterfeit cards.

NDS has called the allegations "outrageous and baseless".

Paul Field alerted me to several relevant websites. One carries a report on action taken jointly by the police and investigators from Fact (the Federation Against Copyright Theft) against alleged ITV Digital smartcard hackers.

BSB squarial
Museum piece: Will ITV Digital go the way of BSB?
The other is reputedly a website dedicated to hacking which proved to be down (having "exceeded its monthly bandwidth") when I visited.

Tony Charmier, an electronics engineer, owns a 350 Philips set-top box which he bought from Comet in 1999 when Ondigital (as ITV Digital was then called) refused to sell him a subscription on the grounds that his home in Crawley, West Sussex was outside the service area.

Interference

In fact he enjoys perfectly good digital terrestrial reception - subject only to electrical interference ("even from light switches") that causes the picture to freeze for up to two seconds.

But last year, he says, he was suddenly sent a bill for a month's subscription and was asked to fax Ondigital a copy of his Comet receipt.

"Ondigital seemed to suspect fraud," he writes.

The company's action is perhaps understandable, in view of estimates that there may be 100,000 counterfeit ITV Digital smartcards in circulation.

In general Tony is clearly disappointed by the technical performance of his first-generation set-top box.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell: Decision lies with culture secretary
"It cannot replace the existing analogue transmission: millions of voters will not accept it," he writes, adding that "only Murdoch understood consumers".

This week Peter Bazalgette, boss of Big Brother producer Endemol UK and a director of Channel 4, added his voice to those questioning whether a digital switch-off target date of 2010 is really attainable.

'Unrealistic' target

The target date, he said, is unrealistic and distorts policy-making: it should be abandoned. Digital television uptake should grow organically, without "coercion".

So far the government shows no signs of agreeing.

Last week the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, gave a strong hint that the government might fork out to buy digital receivers for a hard core of refuseniks.

But she added: "It is important to get the timing of the decision right. A premature announcement that we are going to be buying out customers who haven't switched may have the perverse effect of slowing down the take-up."

She's quite right: which is why the government hitherto has been reluctant to concede even the possibility.

But with plenty of people still not convinced of digital's merits - and many second, third and fourth sets which are likely to remain obstinately analogue for a long time to come, buying out the refuseniks could prove very expensive.

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