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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 10:51 GMT
Weighing up TV's digital future
Nick Higham
By Nick Higham
BBC News

It is official. More than half the homes in Britain now have digital television.

Sky digital electronic programme guide
Digital TV is due to replace analogue completely by 2010
The first quarterly "digital television update" from the new regulator Ofcom puts the number of houses with Sky, Freeview or digital cable services at 12.36 million - or 50.2% of the total, boosted by huge sales of Freeview boxes in the run-up to Christmas.

This is an important milestone on the road to digital switchover - though, in fact, more than half the population (as opposed to half the homes) have had digital television for some time.

That's because digital households have historically tended to be families with children, with more people living under the one roof, whereas homes without digital are more likely to be occupied by childless couples or older people.

Still, it would be a brave government which committed itself to switching off analogue television transmissions by the original deadline of 2010 on the basis of these figures.

Even if the penetration of digital television reaches 95% of homes by then, it is still likely to be a lot less than 95% of television sets.

There is also the problem of the hardcore of 'digital refuseniks' who say they are not interested in digital and don't want it
Ofcom reckons almost one million Freeview adapters were sold in the last three months - but 15% were connected to second sets in homes that already had digital on the main set.

Given that most homes have second, third or fourth TVs, that implies an awful lot of televisions which are still not digitally-adapted, are unlikely to be digitally-adapted by 2010, and would be rendered useless by analogue switch-off.

Imagine the political consequences for any government which deprived voters of their viewing under such a scenario.

There is also the problem of the hardcore of "digital refuseniks" who say they are not interested in digital and don't want it. Research by the DTI suggests as many as 13% of the population could fall into that category.

Staggered switchover

No wonder the government is fighting shy of confirming a target date for switchover, despite pressure from Ofcom and receiver manufacturers, who believe a deadline would concentrate everyone's minds.

They also say an announcement will have to be made this year if the 2010 target is to be met, because going entirely digital will mean replacing (or producing an adapter for) every existing television and VCR - some 63 million pieces of kit.

Meanwhile, the government has reportedly been getting a little helpful advice from the Digital Television Group, an umbrella group of broadcasters and receiver manufacturers, which suggests staggering the switchover process.

Analogue transmitters could be switched off region-by-region, or even channel-by-channel, or perhaps a combination of the two - switching off BBC Two in Wales, say, as a heavy hint that it is time to buy a digital TV.

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

You can e-mail Nick Higham on nick.higham@bbc.co.uk.


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