ONtrack again 

1 January 2001 tbs.pm/1645

Yeah, I know. Before I even start I’ll concede. Sky Digital has 4.6 million subscribers whereas ONdigital has 1m, with various cable companies making up the other existing subscriptions that are a part of the 6.6m households already subscribed to digital television.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m even bothering to write an article trying to say that ONdigital is better than Sky, when the figures speak for themselves.

That’s just the point – I’m not. Only a fool would try to prove that a system with hundreds of channels, dozens of pay-per-view channels, access to digital radio and by far the most advanced and capable technology isn’t superior to the platform with a maximum of about fifty channels, many of which are restricted into broadcasting shared hours.

I just wish to defend the aforementioned digital terrestrial provider, and argue that it has as much right to exist as Sky, with a few things going for it too.

I subscribed to ONdigital in the summer of last year, and I’ve been very impressed. When the subject comes up in conversation and I mention I’m with On, people have said things like “Oh, that’s not very good, is it?”

There’s a misconception in the minds of those who see the word “Sky” as synonymous with multi-channel television that ONdigital dispatches set-top boxes with live wires hanging out of the back, have smoke coming out of the grill and have “ONdigital” scrawled on the front in crude marker pen over the top of a barely visible “Sky”.

OK, that’s a massive exaggeration, but the fact remains that ONdigital provides a service. A good service. It may not have Disney Playhouse, or Cartoon Network +1, or (shock, horror!) the essential Community Channel, but carried on the platform are the main channels that most people would regularly find themselves watching.

The figures aren’t even that simple, either. ONdigital signed up it’s millionth customer quicker than Sky did, and there’s also the small matter of a ten year head start and millions of customers that Sky had waiting to transfer to the digital service, in addition to a well-known name to make Sky’s own figures add up to more than ONdigital.

Getting digital is often referred to as “getting Sky”, because that’s precisely what people do. Not even considering the alternatives or why the pavement was ripped up a couple of years ago to put a big pipe in.

There’s two ways of looking at the situation – you get more channels for your money on Sky, or you pay for channels you never watch on Sky.

That depends on your own viewing habits, and as I’ve said I’m not arguing against Sky. There are people who exist who do not want up to 200 channels, who are perfectly satisfied with the four or five that they can receive now and if anything would only want the free-to-air channels, as paying a subscription in addition to the licence fee is not an attractive proposition.

I’ve heard many pro-Sky arguments that revolve around “it’s got more channels” and not a lot else, and assume that ONdigital does not have the right to exist because of this.

My parents subscribed to ONdigital recently. They know they don’t want lots of channels, or to have a dish or cable installed to make it more permanent, so went for the terrestrial option which allowed them to continue to use the existing aerial and receive programmes in high quality, widescreen formats with additional channels as well.

Three months into the subscription and they still don’t watch an awful lot other than BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Or, come to think of it, BBC One, BBC Two and Channel 4. Actually, mainly BBC Two and Channel 4. But mostly BBC Two.

They don’t like Ali G. My father still asks, “when is the news on?” – forgetting channel 11’s BBC News 24. They’re fully fledged analogue viewers and will probably continue to be for the considerable future.

Why should they have to have 200 channels “because they can”? Because people seem to think they have to in order to survive in the much hyped “revolution” of digital television.

It’s a situation that has caused ONdigital many problems during the first 27 months of its existence. Quite rightly, it has promoted the easy set-up nature of the system, but there are a few more plus points that it can – and in many cases does – promote.

The UEFA Champions League on ONsport means that ONdigital has more football than Sky, it has as much Internet capability as its rivals and also pay-per-view films (although not as many, but who could watch sixty at a time?). There’s also a few advantages held over Sky.

A full range of digital teletext, interactivity on channels such as E4, a timer system that allows the box to change channels automatically for timer recording and, of course, ITV. It’s a different platform that different people with different viewing habits subscribe too, and they’re not in any way losing out.

As Granada and Carlton run the system, a subscription to ONdigital is a subscription to keep the old analogue channels special, and not in the same league as Sky One.

The free-to-air services provided by the existing companies are listed in the opening section of the channel list, not after all the channels that get higher ratings. And, as the recent fuss over E4 demonstrated, the “four old ones” can still muster up something that Sky viewers want.

As the BBC gears up to launch BBC3, BBC4, CBBC Playbox and an as-yet unnamed children’s channel for 6-13 year olds (with Newsround four times a day – you won’t get that on Nickelodeon) this Autumn, it’s expected that the re-vamped band of channels will encourage more people to switch on to digital as it has the things they want to see, rather than just limp old repeats of The Simpsons.

The CBBC plans are understandably making a consortium of existing children’s TV channel providers nervous and they hide behind “unfair competition” as a reason for not allowing the BBC to go ahead.

The “old” channels that no one on Sky apparently watches and that ONdigital viewers have to “make do with” could prove to be the saving grace of the digital revolution. And ONdigital viewers will be there all the way.

[Since this article was written, ONdigital was rebranded to ITV Digital, but ITV Digital has since closed and has been replaced, after a prolonged wait, by a free service called Freeview and a small pay service called Top Up TV]

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