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Analog TV turn-off: Don’t hold your breath

AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands ” When it comes to the adoption of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and the epoch-shifting day when analog broadcasts are shut off forever, the European Union is no union, a fact reinforced in presentations here Thursday (Sept. 11) at the International Broadcast Convention (IBC).

Despite a Europe-wide digital TV standard, Digital Video Broadcast (DVB), the hope among broadcasters promoting DTT is being frustrated, for the foreseeable future, by divergent business models (free or pay TV), varying government regulations throughout the EU, huge variations in market size and economic gaps between the rich countries of the West and the developing countries of the old Eastern bloc.

An illustration of the long and winding road to DTT is the progress of the digital transition in Germany. There, only 0.5 percent of all TV viewers are watching digital. But, as of Aug. 4, everyone in Berlin with terrestrial TV was watching digital. The analog pipe was shut off that day. Berliners, who had been blitzed with public service messages about the analog turn-off and with regular on-air repetitions of the slogan “Das Ueberall Fernsehen” (“Everywhere TV”), had an immediate selection of 26 free channels and were already paying as little as 69 euros for the set-top box that allows an old analog TV to receive digital signals.

However, according to Bernd Heimermann of Deutsche Telecom T-Systems Mediabroadcast, the complete conversion to digital broadcast in Germany won't come for at least seven years. For other countries, the timetable is years slower. Alex Schultzycki of European Broadcasting Union in Switzerland noted that Spain, for example, which inaugurated a pay DTT system called Quiero, has slunk back to the drawing board. Quiero, like its British forebear, ITV, drowned recently in a sea of red ink.

A key argument among broadcasters was whether a free-to-air business model, like the suddenly successful Freeview system in the U.K. ” built on the bones of ITV ” is the answer. The alternative is a pay model, like the system now reaching one in every 1,000 viewers in the Netherlands.

On this point, Schultzycki was the most emphatic. “A free model is preferable to the pay models we've seen fail,” he said. “You have to get advertisers to kick in and get to analog shut-off as soon as possible.”

However, by Schultzicki's own measure, no EU country is close to analog shut-off. He noted that only two countries, the U.K. with 6.1 percent market penetration, and Finland with 6.5 percent, are reaching even one in 20 viewers with DTT. Sweden (4.2 percent) and Spain (1.1) percent, are the only other EU nations above 1 percent.

France is a major laggard, having published a 158-step preparation process before venturing into DTT broadcast. “If I was that cautious,” said Schultzycki, “I wouldn't get up in the morning.”

One consolation for the EU commentators came from Australian John Bigeni of DVB Australia, who noted that things are even slower in Asia, where DVB is not a common standard. Japan has its own digital platform, called ISDB, and South Korea is currently struggling with glitches in the U.S.-specified ATSC platform. Meanwhile, China is leaning toward DVB, but is designing its own Chinese version of the European standard.

Perhaps the keynote of the day was offered by another Australian, Colin Wright of Seven Network, who broached another big issue. During a panel discussion entitled “Digital Terrestrial Television: Making It Pay,” Wright said bluntly, “We're not making an extra cent on digital. It's all cost. It's costing us a lot of money.”

–David Benjamin is a freelance writer based in Paris.

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