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Scotland's digital switchover set to begin in earnest

27 April 10 08:49 GMT

In a week's time, a year-long programme to switch off analogue television in Scotland begins in earnest.

Jamie McIvor assesses what the gradual move to a multi-channel world has meant for Scots.

It seems barely credible that scarcely 10 years ago most Scots seemed happy with only four or five television channels.

Satellite television was a minority interest. Indeed many people looked at satellite dishes with derision.

It was the one gadget many aspirational people did not want.

Now as preparations begin to switch off analogue TV across Scotland - Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders have already gone digital - it is becoming clear that for most viewers the change will be of historic interest only.

Rather like the official end of 405 line television in the 1980s long after most people had stopped using it.

In barely a decade, multichannel TV has become a part of everyday life - like mobile phones, the internet and debit cards.

'Vulnerable' helped

Indeed more than 90% of people already have digital TV on their main sets. Most portables have also been upgraded.

Of the remaining 10%, some viewers know exactly what they are doing. They want Freeview but live in areas where this only becomes available when analogue TV ends.

Instead over the next year the effort will be concentrated on helping some elderly and vulnerable people make the change.

However the gradual switch to multichannel TV may also be seen as marking a shift in Scottish cultural life, especially in how Scots actually perceive television and how television shapes their view of the world.

Twenty years ago, BBC1 Scotland and STV and Grampian together accounted for more than 80% of Scottish viewing.

Even when people were watching the same programmes as viewers in other parts of the UK, they were viewing them through a Scottish prism - although, of course, there have always been debates about both the quantity and quality of programmes made in Scotland.

Today three main channels offer distinct Scottish services - BBC1 Scotland, BBC2 Scotland and STV - but more than half of viewing is accounted for by hundreds of other channels which broadcast identical services across the whole UK and sometimes beyond.

The old phrase "except in Scotland" is increasingly meaningless - viewers with satellite and cable are well aware of how easy it is to switch to the English versions of BBC1, BBC2 and ITV1 if they disapprove of Scottish schedule changes.

A major report into Scottish broadcasting in 2008 argued that the traditional "opt out" model of Scottish broadcasting, where channels tailor the UK schedules to fit in Scottish programmes, was dying. The long term future, it said, would have to lie in standalone Scottish channels.

Indeed the switchover will lead to a significant economic change for STV - it makes it much harder to impose obligations on STV which do not apply to other commercial broadcasters.

That was the reason why Labour attempted to set up a scheme to pay for the Scottish News on STV with public money.

There have been legal implications too. Once it was possible to "black out" programmes in Scotland on legal grounds - for instance a BBC Panorama interview with Prime Minister John Major shortly before the Scottish local elections in 1995.

Football ban

Today the spread of satellite means a ban would need to apply across the UK to be effective. Any ban in Scotland alone would simply lower a programme's profile.

The idea that the SFA could once prevent English football matches from being screened in Scotland also seems like a distant memory.

It seems bizarre to think that pubs in remote parts of the Kintyre peninsula - where reception came from Northern Ireland - used to get a small boost when fans from other nearby areas turned up to watch games which BBC Scotland and STV were not allowed to show.

From the 1960s onwards, the spread of television to isolated parts of Scotland undoubtedly began to influence social attitudes and popular culture.

Today the internet may influence young people as much as, if not more than, broadcasting - websites, which like many digital tv stations, do not acknowledge the existence of the Scottish border.

Scottish broadcasting increasingly has to compete for attention against UK wide and international services.

In a generation's time, it might be interesting to assess if this has any wider impact on the Scottish psyche.

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