Television's twilight

The BBC is pleased to report that, a few years ahead of planned analogue switch-off, the UK has one of the highest densities of digital TV in Europe: at least where the household's main set is involved:

Digital television is spreading faster in Britain than in France, Canada, the US, Germany, Italy and Japan, according to UK communications regulator Ofcom.

Research suggests that 86% of homes in Britain can now receive digital on their main set, while 30% have digital video recorders.

Ofcom itself was almost breathless in its press release. "UK consumers are blazing the way when it comes to embracing the digital TV age", it enthused.

Of course, that still leaves a great number of analogue sets relegated to kitchens or bedrooms, many of which will be incapable of receiving digital signals - even via a set-top box - because they rely on portable aerials. When analogue signals are confiscated, great will be the indignation among those suddenly faced with a blank screen. Some will resent the cost of upgrading their equipment; others may decide to cut their losses and do something useful with their evenings instead, like blogging. It may be relevant that another finding of Ofcom's International Communications Market Report was that Britain is now second only to the US when it comes to average weekly internet use - 14 hours per person. Not excessively high, perhaps, considering there are some people who would seem to do little else.

What it doesn't say is why the UK is "blazing a trail", at least when it comes to digital TV. A successful advertising campaign, perhaps? Or is it just that the public have been driven to satellite television or Freeview because the main terrestrial channels no longer offer much worth watching?

More channels do not, of course, mean more high-quality TV shows. At most, the effect of a multitude of "choice" is to spread the cream thin - and ensure that half the time you'll only find out about a programme you would have watched once you've missed it. That's my experience, at any rate. Most of the many channels, most of the time, will be filled with rubbish - but since even rubbish, even repeated rubbish, costs money to broadcast more is likely to mean worse. A depressingly high proportion of the channels available on Freeview offer shopping or rigged competitions anyway. Is it really worth all the trouble?

The BBC has been struggling to hold its own - and will struggle to maintain its licence fee - in this new digital world where there is both more available to watch and less incentive to do so, with audiences continuing to fall off in real terms as well as in market share. Increasing numbers of viewers will scarcely avail themselves of BBC services at all. As it is, the strong-arm tactics of the TV Licensing authority - threats of court action repeatedly delivered to households that have no television at all - are being highlighted in the Daily Telegraph, whose former editor Charles Moore recently promised to stop paying his in protest at the vast salary paid to Jonathan Ross. The Sunday Times reported that he is unlikely to be prosecuted. The BBC don't want to create martyrs, allegedly - and certainly not high-profile ones.

The Telegraph's reporter Alex Singleton failed to persuade TV Licensing to show him the inside - or even the outside - of one of their famous (and famously elusive) detector vans. I wonder why. I well remember the day when someone told me they didn't actually exist. I would have been around sixteen. It was one of those penny-dropping moments similar to finding out that there's no Santa Claus, or how babies are made. I've no proof, of course, that (as Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance is quoted in the report) that the vans are just a myth used "to frighten people". But no one who isn't connected with the BBC or TV Licensing ever seems to see one. There ought to be a way of finding out the truth - although Singleton reveals that the authority has refused to answer a Freedom of Information request about the vans on the grounds that "if the number of vans was known, public perception of their usefulness would be undermined". Which is quite a striking admission in itself.

The behaviour of enforcement officers - who are apparently paid by commission - also leaves something to be desired:

In 2005, a visiting officer was convicted of assault against an Ormskirk resident who claimed he did not need a licence and started filming the officer. Two months ago an officer was convicted in Maidstone Crown Court of perverting the course of justice and four charges of false accounting after he fabricated confessions by four members of the public whom he hadn’t even visited, echoing an almost identical earlier case in Wales.

The peasants are at last beginning to revolt, one feels.

Meanwhile, in another straw in the wind, the Telegraph is reporting that the rules of Strictly Come Dancing are being re-written to give the judges more power. Starting next series if the judges give one of the couples bottom marks three weeks in a row they're out - no matter how popular they are with the public. Call it the Sergeant rule: never again will the ordinary punters have the final veto over who stays or who goes. They don't like democracy very much, do they? People's right to vote is to be tolerated, but only so far as they do what they're supposed to.

It reminds me rather of the constitution of Iran, where the Islamic Council of Guardians has the final say on who is allowed to stand in elections. Result: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


septicisle said…
They don't of course need the vans anymore anyway. As they say, "it's all in the database."
Anonymous said…
I have to admit I was slightly older when i found out that the detector vans were all a myth.

When I first went to Uni my parents paid for my TV license afraid that I would end up in court with a 10K fine as stated in the adverts if I didn't.

I found the license fee for students unfair, as I shared the flat with six other people. Yet due to having locks on the doors we all had to pay individual licenses instead of sharing. #

After a month of being at Uni and paying for the license I got a letter from the Beeb. It stated that they had detected that I had not paid for a license and it advised me to pay for one in immediate affect unless I wanted a fine. Slightly bemused i showed my letter to my friends and everyone in the Uni got sent one.

As I found out they can only enter the Uni premises with the permission of the University. To that extent the University was decent as if they did arrange to come the Univeristy would tell the students. So you either lock the door and go away for the day or you remove the ariel and say you use the TV for DVD's or computer games. And there is sod all they could do.

It's actually difficult to get busted for not having a TV license, they are mainly relying on ignorance.
Yer, people spending lots of time online just wasting their life away. What a bunch of losers.

Wait a minute....
Anonymous said…
Why is Britain ahead in uptake? Because in the UK we are used to just 4 channels, and multi-channel TV has always seemed like a premium service, so now it is available for a one off £25 payment, we jump at the chance. But as you note, there's nothing on those new freeview channels.

Hopefully some of the bandwidth they free up from the analogue spectrum will be used for a futuristic, Japanese-style super-fast mobile internet, but we'll probably end up with more BBC - DAB radio is basically exclusively BBC now.

By the way, try not to get too upset over "strictly". We're an interactive nation now - maybe some of that will spill over in to people actually going out and voting!
WeepingCross said…
In 1991 I shared a flat with five other post-graduates at the University of Leicester, and one girl, who had a teeny-tiny TV in her room, was indeed visited by the bad van men from Auntie. I don't think it was any of us who shopped her - certainly nothing was ever hinted along those lines. So perhaps there are little green men, broadcastingly speaking, after all.

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