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Digital Television It has been one the biggest changes to TV ever

  Written by Richard Bell - 1999

It has been one the biggest changes to TV ever. We've been waiting for it for years, and now, finally, it has arrived. For the first time, a large selection of stations are available terrestrially, many of them requiring a subscription. But what does this mean to the viewer?

There is a widespread ignorance and apathy about the new services, and their consequences for the viewing public at large. Below is an introduction to the services available:

What is Digital TV?

Before the advent of Digital TV, viewers got their pictures in one of three ways. Terrestrial TV is broadcast from several hundred transmitter sites across the country and is received via a normal, roof-top or set-top aerial. Satellite TV was established in the UK in the late eighties, dominated by Sky Television. Cable TV is provided by a range of companies across the country, but there is a physical line from the cable company to every house, providing TV channels and a telephone service.

Digital TV is already available on each of these media, eventually replacing the analogue methods completely. Analogue Cable is now mainly discontinued. Sky stopped its analogue services around the same time. Analogue terrestrial will be the biggest problem as coverage will have to be vastly increased before switch-off is considered. One way to increase coverage would be to close down some transmitters early, but this is unlikely to happen in the next few years. Work is still going on to convert the remaining analogue transmitters to transmit Nicam Stereo, so there looks to be no cutting back in the analogue terrestrial coverage just yet. Places like Wales will be particularly hard to cover satisfactorily. With, one channel is broadcast on a particular frequency. With Digital, MPEG-2 compression methods are used to broadcast several channels on one frequency. As well as this, there are additional services. Sky has a good EPG - comprehensive listings for the coming days. ITVDigital has only Now and Next programme info. Both have recently launched e-mail access. Digital Text services are available on digital terrestrial and are also available from Sky.

Receiving the New Services

The simplest way to receive Digital TV is a via a conventional TV and a terrestrial set-top box. ITVDigital will 'rent' a set-top, free of charge, box to anyone that wants one, as long as they subscribe for a minimum period of 12 months and for as long as they do so. The minimum subscription is 9.99 per month which gives you one out of a possible 12 'Primary' Channels. Integrated TVs are also available for sale, and the price differential between them and terrestrial receivers is closing.

For Digital reception via satellite, a dish along with a satellite set-top box is required. SkyDigital were giving away set-top boxes for free whilst you subscribe for 12 months.  This offer will end on 31st December 2001.

There is also Digital on Cable in some parts of the country as well.

One big difference between SkyDigital and ITVDigital, is that the latter is not providing conventional teletext services. One of the reasons given that teletext was not available via ITVDigital was that Digital Text would be soon available. This took much longer than expected and is still not available via most makes of box. Another reason was probably due to the cost of adding features to the box to cope with Teletext. The Sky Digibox has to make sure the teletext data is relayed to the TV in the correct aspect ratio so that the TV can decode it. From what I've heard this isn't always successful, resulting in text dropouts from time to time.

 But however it is transmitted or received, the fact is that digital TV has arrived. TV companies have been gearing up for months, years even.

One of BBC Northern Ireland's Digital TV suites is shown left, with David Olver in the Hot Seat. It is normally used to broadcast BBC ONE. The BBC's digital broadcasting areas are much more hi-tech than their analogue counterparts, with a much higher level of automation. Digital suites play most idents and slides directly off computer, instead of analogue which still uses laserdisc, or, due to a laserdisc shortage, tape!

Content Providers

Here is a selection of the content providers in digital TV:


The oldest broadcaster etc etc provides old favourites and new programming. BBC ONE and TWO are available in widescreen versions, though they do not have full regional coverage yet (While BBC ONE is broadcasting most regional programmes on analogue terrestrial, BBC TWO digital isn't regional at all). BBC ONE via satellite currently has only regional variations in the nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Gaps produced by regional programming are filled by either UK Today (a service from News 24 consisting mostly of regional stories from across the country) or BBC South-East programmes such as 'First Sight' or 'Around Westminster'. The full regional service should be available on terrestrial soon, though there may not be any increase in regional broadcasting on satellite for the moment due to cost.

The BBC has other services such as News 24, which is also available on analogue cable, and BBC CHOICE which is not. The latter has four versions, for the four parts of the UK though they usually only differ for two hours each evening. All versions are available on satellite, though via terrestrial only the 'local' version is available. A recent channel revamp has resulted in the number of programmes being dropped and more repeats. There are also repeats of programmes from BBC ONE and TWO. A children's service is shown on a loop from 6 in the morning, finishing 6pm or 7pm at weekends. BBC KNOWLEDGE is an educational channel, showing programmes from 8am till around midnight, though programmes are on a 3 hour loop.

The BBC also have a Digital Text service and the BBC PARLIAMENT channel, though only in sound on Digital Terrestrial due to bandwidth restrictions. All channels are broadcast on the BBC's own multiplex which it is entitles to be law.

The BBC also operates several commercial subscription channels, under the UKTV brand. Although operated from Television Centre like other BBC Channels, they are not branded as such, but as UK Gold, Play UK and so on. To enable the BBC to enter the commercial market, it has created a commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and these channels are operated in conjunction with Flextech. Some of the Channels are available on ITVDigital, though for the full range, you need Sky.


ITV share a multiplex with Channel Four and both channels are identical to their analogue counterparts in programming - widescreen broadcasting is available for a growing number of programmes. The extra channels are ITV2 which covers most ITV regions. The channel consists of repeats from ITV and new programming. It generally broadcasts from 4pm to after midnight, though there is a 9.25am start in the morning. The exceptions to coverage are UTV2, a version in Northern Ireland, though due to the small number of people able to receive the channel, it currently does not carry any advertising or continuity. ITV2's programmes are used mostly, though part of the schedules are made up from repeats of 80's Ulster Television shows.

Channel Four has a premium film channel (6/month) called Film Four and an occasional channel called 4 Extra, which is used to provide extended coverage of some sports programmes. Teletext Ltd also has a service on this multiplex.


SDN is a collaboration between S4C, the Welsh Fourth Channel and United News and Media.  There are some services which must be carried on SDN's multiplex, such as Channel 5 across the UK, S4C Digidol, S4C2 in Wales and TeleG in Scotland.

I must say I am surprised however, that there is no Irish programming in Northern Ireland. Whilst I do not speak the language myself, there are apparently more Irish speakers in NI than Scottish speakers in Scotland, so it would make sense to have something. The government has said that it will provide the Republic's Irish language channel TG4 at some stage, though I expect it will not be in its current form. Due to the fact that the channel now includes much English-language programming (such as Doctor Who), I suspect they may strip this out when showing it north of the border to make it primarily an Irish channel.
But back to the present situation. S4C Digidol is entirely Welsh-language, consisting of S4C analogue's Welsh-language programmes, mostly from the BBC and HTV Wales. S4C2 is Welsh Parliamentary coverage in English and Welsh from the BBC. The remaining bandwidth is taken up by ITVSelect, a collaboration between ITVDigital and SDN. Channel 5 leases its unused bandwidth to SDN at present, though this may change if and when C5 launch their movie channel. Film Four it won't be. SDN has started to provide Pay-Per-View Movies under the ITVSelect banner.


Where do I start?! As well as having its own service, SkyDigital which provides viewers with a large number of channels, it also provides channels for ITVDigital, digital and analogue cable and its own analogue satellite service. The most popular channel is Sky One which provides a mixture of popular American imports and its own limited programming, made for it by independent production companies such as LWT. Its channels are uplinked to the Astra 2A satellite, and can be received by a "mini-dish" using a 'digibox' to decode the MPEG-2 transmissions into a watchable picture.


ITVDigital operates by virtue of bidding for, and winning a government franchise to operate three multiplexes. Its programmes come from Sky, ITVDigital's owners (Granada and Carlton), UKTV (BBC/Flextech), and Discovery. The Carlton channels are not available on Sky.

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All images, text and commentary written by Richard Bell for TV Zone.  Update editing by Mark Snowdon

Last Updated: February 11, 2020