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MADRID — Bespectacled, laconic, Spain’s industry minister Jose Montilla isn’t an obvious Santa Claus.

But on Dec. 31 he announced a sackful of goodies to mark the country’s first serious thrust to kick-start digital terrestrial television (DTT). Among the highlights:

  •  Spain’s analog switch-off will be brought forward from 2012 to 2010;

  •  The 14-channel digital spectrum freed-up by the closure of DTT paybox Quiero TV in 2002 will be divided up between established TV stations and four new operators;

  •  Spanish media group Vocento will be allowed to maintain stakes in analog broadcaster Telecinco and DTT startup Net TV.

  •  Government reps will meet manufacturers and installers to discuss digital TV and decoder take-up.

    Spain has an 18.6% total digital TV penetration (satellite, cable and DTT), ahead of Germany’s 6.8% but lagging behind Italy’s 23%, France’s 25.5%, and the U.K.’s 57.8%, per Screen Digest TV & Broadband Intelligence.

But, with France — which still has to launch DTT — it’s a Euro laggard.

The penetration of DTT alone stands at 1.05%, against Germany’s 2.7%, Italy’s 4.1%, and the U.K.’s 18.2%.

Spain’s DTT record mixes market indifference and farce.

Quiero TV, Europe’s third DTT operator, launched a pay service in 2000. But its so-so contents failed to fire take-up. It closed with 120,000 subs and E320 million ($430.7 million) debts, denting market confidence in DTT.

Net TV and Veo won free-to-view DTT licenses in 2000.

Four years later, Spain has 1.6 million digital satellite subs for Digital Plus, 470,000 digital cable clients, but only some 130,000 digital TV sets or free-to-view set-top receivers.

“What Spain needs is a platform, formed by the government and broadcasters to push DTT,” says Screen Digest senior analyst Guy Bisson.

The platform may now be in the making. Montilla’s promise of industry meetings hints at facilities — tax breaks, say — to accelerate the process.

Given Spaniards’ expenditure on flat-screen analog TV sets over Christmas, which can’t receive digital signals, the business-model to follow will be cheap decoder boxes similar to the U.K.’s highly successful Freeview, backed by the BBC and BSkyB.

Philips has brought out a digibox for $120, though it’s seen little demand. Digital TVs costs upward of $900.

The new regs will keep powerful media groups — Vocento, Prisa — in the DTT sector.

Yet accessible hardware alone will hardly power a switchover. DTT needs contents.

Unlike the U.K., Spain cannot draw on vast vaults of revered old shows to rerun. Just who will provide must-see original DTT programming remains Spain’s large — and unanswered — question.