Analog hang-up sours digital dream

Older aud's viewing patterns affect TV tech switch

LONDON – From Los Angeles to London and beyond, the high-tech dream of switching off the analog TV signal by 2010 as every household goes digital looks set to become a nightmare for governments and regulators.

That is the conclusion of a wide-ranging new report by Informa Media Group, Global Digital TV, which argues that analog switch-off is extremely unlikely to take place in any of the 43 countries covered by the report within the next six years.

“The U.S. will have the highest digital TV penetration by 2010 at 91%. However, the government is unlikely to sanction analog switch-off even at this high proportion,” says the report’s editor, Simon Murray.

“No politician will want to risk grandma being unable to watch her favorite TV program,” he adds. “That would be political suicide.

“The U.K. is the world leader in digital TV (at the moment) with more than 50% of homes connected to digital, but unless something drastic occurs like subsidized set-top boxes, which has already happened in Italy, switching off the analog signal by 2010 is not going to happen.”

In Blighty, digital penetration, initially driven by satcaster BSkyB, has been boosted recently by the huge growth of Freeview, backed by the BBC, BSkyB and technology outfit Castle Communications.

With no monthly subs, Freeview is the world’s only successful digital terrestrial television platform. It gives auds an extra 30 or so channels by connecting a so-called “digi-box” to analog sets.

These sell in British stores for as little as $75, but cheap or not, Freeview’s growth is expected to slow this year, not least because a lot of older viewers appear to have little interest in the delights of digital.

Murray predicts the U.S., where digital satellite and cable is well established, will overtake the U.K. in digital takeup in the next two or three years driven by the spread of digital cable.

However, he does not expect North American analog signals to be switched off until around 2012-13, with Blighty following a couple of years later.

Subsequently, Ireland, Sweden and Canada are expected to be the next countries to go fully digital.

Informa predicts the U.S. will have 51 million digital households (43% of the world’s total) by the end of this year, up 5.5 million on 2003. By the end of 2010, this figure is expected to double.

Back in London, the prediction that digital switchover is a nonstarter until 2015 will make grim reading for policymakers.

The plan in Blighty is to start switching off the analog signal a region at a time commencing in 2007, with a trial anticipated early next year.

Last week, British media minister Tessa Jowell wrote to broadcasters urging them to come up with an “appropriate timetable” for switchover. She claimed the 2010 deadline “remains attainable.”

Try telling that to Informa.

Global Digital Television — Fourth Edition is published by Informa Media Group this month.