Trio to miss EC’s digital deadline

Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria delay analog switchoff

Budapest– Hungary has become the third country in Central Europe to announce it will miss the European Commission-set deadline to switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting.

The conversion was due to take place at the start of 2012. But Hungary’s Mass Media Act, which came into effect on Jan. 1, postpones the switchover until 2014, defying Brussels’ digital agenda.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have postponed a full switchover until 2015, which is confounding the EC’s plans for “digital dividends” — freeing up frequencies for state-of-the-art uses such as mobile broadband.

According to Jonathan Todd, EC spokesperson on the digital agenda, the main victim in these delays will be TV consumers.

“The earlier the switchoff of analog terrestrial TV broadcasting is achieved, the sooner the full benefits of digitization can be realized for consumers,” Todd tells Variety.

It’s not only viewers in the foot-dragging countries that could suffer.

“The delay may cause spectrum coordination problems for neighboring countries, whose ability to exploit fully the spectrum for digital broadcasting or other applications may be restricted by interference,” Todd says.

But broadcasters in all three countries say postponing the switchover was unavoidable.

“Hungary is not ready,” says Laszlo Szucs, board member of the Hungarian Cable Communication Assn.

According to Szucs, 3 million of Hungary’s 3.8 million TV households are already connected to digital through cable or satellite subscriptions. The remaining 800,000 households still need to purchase analog converter technology or join a cable/satellite service to continue watching TV after the digital switchover.

Hungary’s digital delay gives the government time to conduct a public education campaign to reach these households.

As much as time is an issue, money appears to be in even shorter supply. “The switch was delayed mainly because of lack of funding during the transition period,” says Constantin Mocanu, general manager of Romanian commercial network PRO TV, which is owned by Ron Lauder’s Central European Media Enterprises.

Mocanu says money is necessary for an information campaign and to offer subsidies to low-income viewers who can’t afford the digital set-top boxes needed to receive the digital signal.

Delays also may be linked to a lack of understanding among politicians as to what a digital broadcast environment might look like.

“They just don’t understand how the media works and how it has changed in the last 20 years,” says Eva Simon, a lawyer for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in describing the recently elected government in Budapest.

Officials in Brussels admit there is little that can be done. “The deadline of 2012 was agreed in 2005,” Todd says. “All member states have given a strong political commitment to the European Union and to each other to switch off analog terrestrial TV transmissions by 2012 at the latest. But the deadline is a political agreement and not a legally binding obligation.”