Set-top boxes unavailable until late December

OSLO — Talk up digital, widescreen or “Big Brother” and you’ll be talking business with the tech-savvy entertainment-hungry frozen North.

Finland’s digital platform launch will go ahead as planned this August, but disappointingly at half mast, due to a lack of digital set-top boxes.

“The problem is not with Finland, but with European manufacturers,” says Isme Silvo, director of programs for YLE+, a cultural niche channel to be launched on Finnish pubcaster YLE’s multiplex.

Two other multiplexes will carry channels operated by commercial outfits MTV3 and its competitor Channel Four, as well as a raft of other niche outlets.

Silvo adds, “We have said all along that when Finland establishes its platform it will be an (open network) platform. We expected the set-tops would be available when we set the date for Aug. 27, but we have a firm commitment from manufacturers that it will now likely be closer to Christmas.”

Both Silvo’s channel and Channel Four are meeting the delay with a cautious programming strategy for starting up.

“We are enhancing existing programming, doing some interactive, but we are not going to start making new acquisitions until a justifiable percentage of the households are able to receive the programming,” says Timo Tuovinen, who moved over from pubcaster YLE to Channel Four last year as head of acquisitions.

While Finland mulls its digital delay, both Modern Times Group’s ViaSat and Canal Digital have announced phase-out dates for their regional analog platforms. MTG’s is set for the end of the first quarter; Canal Digital’s a bit later.

ViaSat has already switched its 350,000 premium ViaSat Gold analog customers over to digital and has thrown in a free set-top box.

Side benefits to the digital swap are plentiful. ViaSat’s platform had a 76% subscriber uptake at the end of last year, and its main distrib channel TV3 has boosted aud share to 15%.

On top of that, longtime underperforming feevee op TV1000 and Cinema will become profitable much sooner than was originally expected, as a result of the digital platform, says Stockholm-based Carnegie analyst Peter Dahlander.

Certainly digital is beginning to push viewer expectations.

“We’re seeing a lot of people buying widescreen TVs in order to receive the films that we are broadcasting on NRK 2,” notes head of fiction drama acquisition at Norway’s NRK, Ake Kallqvist, who has headed up most of the widescreen buying for the channel.

On a different matter, Norway was a latecomer when it comes to going for reality programming, but it has made up for lost time.

“Norwegian audiences clearly cannot get enough of it,” notes Bente Engerbretsen, acquisition executive at SBS Broadcasting’s Norwegian channel TvNorge.

Wegelius TV’s reality drama “The Big Class Reunion” on NRK boasted aud shares as high as 76%, but the Norwegian version of “Big Brother” — produced for TvNorge — has been challenging even those numbers. In its first couple days, it lured as many as 750,000 viewers, more than the show drew in Sweden (600,000) and Denmark (540,000).

With aud shares as high as 56%, new Wegelius TV celebrity game format “Friends Forever,” developed in conjunction with TV2 Danmark for the channel, is beating back TvDanmark’s “Big Brother.”

But the real coup on Danish soil may be TV Zulu, TV2’s digital channel, which launched in December. It already has picked up 2% aud shares, according to head of sales and co-production, Mette Hoffman Meyer.

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