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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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