Next Steps 

1 February 2002

A year ago I wrote a defence of ONdigital, detailing what the platform had going for it in the long term and why it wasn’t going to be another BSB.

Since then subscriptions to the service have rocketed, public opinion has vastly turned around and as I write Sky Digital is about to go into bankruptcy because of the impact their rival has had on their success.

OK, I’m lying through my teeth. A lot has happened to ONdigital since the beginning of 2001 – some good, most bad.

One of the most sinister changes has been the rephrasing of the question “will the platform fail” to “when will the platform fail”, and I’m going to try and work out why.


In 2001, the story so far was that ONdigital was failing to attract enough subscribers to break even. A solution had to be found to the problem, and the powers that be decided in April that the big change that had to be made would be to the name.

New consolidation within ITV allowed the two owners, Granada and Carlton, to rename the platform ITV Digital. A massive marketing campaign followed – well, there were a few adverts.

The focus was a small, woollen monkey, helpfully named Monkey, and his couch-potato friend Al, played by comedian Johnny Vegas.

They appeared in a number of amusing adverts promoting the name change and the content of ITV Digital, and have been judged a success, with an offer to new customers of a free Monkey when subscribing to the service.

The other big change to come with the relaunch was the new ITV Sport Channel (named by the same idiots that came up with “ITN News Channel”).

This new multimillion pound investment made the most of ITV’s sports rights (OK, football rights) and would coincide with ITV broadcasting the highlights from the Premiere League for the first time in August.

Matches from the Champions League, Worthington Cup and much more were promised, and the channel has so far managed to gather 800,000 subscribers combined from ITV Digital and Telewest.

Unfortunately it needs around 2,000,000 to break even, so ITV have managed to take one step forward and two steps back.

One problem that ITV Digital consistently fails to solve is holding on to its existing subscribers. The “prepaid” venture launched in 2000 was very successful, and brought in a lot of money at once.

But when the twelve-month periods started to finish subscribers didn’t resubscribe – they said, “actually, I can’t be bothered, thanks very much”.

This left ITV Digital with very high churn rates of up to 22%, which was problematic in the Autumn 2001 period where the name change actually started to pay off and in some parts of the UK around Christmas was outselling Sky.

At the time of the name change all ITV Digital subscribers received a letter informing them of the changes, and a set of stickers to put over ONdigital logos on the set top boxes, to – and I’m not joking – “upgrade to the latest technology”.

You could just imagine them wetting themselves in the office when they wrote that. It’s now January 2001 and we’ve still got ONdigital logos on the EPG and menu screens, which is going to be particularly off-putting for new subscribers (whose prepaid boxes now come in ONdigital cardboard boxes with an ITV Digital wrap-a-around slip).

Towards the end of 2001 things started to take a turn for the worse. ITV1 itself was losing audience share to BBC One, and this loss of confidence seemed to permeate ITV Digital. Many channels closed in a short period – Taste CFN, Wellbeing, Two Way TV, and the continued uncertainty over Granada Breeze does not look good.

More channels are promised soon, although it will be difficult to do so many deals at once. To top the year off, around December customers were informed that the price for subscribing to six primary channels would be increasing from £9.99 to £12. Merry Christmas to you too, Mr Prebble.

Interactivity has taken a turn for the worse, with BBC News Interactive simply consisting of an irritating “press red” bar appearing when switching to a channel showing BBC News, which takes us to BBCi Text’s news section.

Whoop-de-doo. Christmas Day’s Top of the Pops “interactivity” was simply a TOTP2-style information bar at the bottom of the screen, which didn’t exactly propel the viewer into the interactive world as Sky’s did.

It is good that the BBC is taking advantage of the technology, but better text-based services for DTT viewers would be appreciated.

So the signs are not good. Or are they? In 2001 we’ve seen Nickelodeon, Paramount Comedy Channel, E4, Discovery and Wellbeing all arrive (and in Wellbeing’s case, swiftly depart) from the platform.

Interactivity for Wimbledon was competent – whilst Sky had picture choice, we had a very handy screen showing results for all courts at one time and special text reports as well. Next month sees the long-awaited launch of CBBC and CBeeBies, followed soon after by BBC4 and hopefully BBC3 – public service broadcasting from the BBC in every sense of the phrase, as all digital viewers will be able to view this revolution in broadcasting.

And, perhaps most interestingly of all, the past few weeks has seen the press launch of a new digital box manufactured by Pace, which will cost only £99.99, fit into the palm of your hand, plug into the back of any television with an aerial connection and received fifteen free-to-air digital channels.

This is the long-awaited piece of technology that could make sceptics of digital finally change over, as there is no monthly subscription and it is relatively cheap.

However, once these are installed in kids’ bedrooms across the country, they decide they might want to watch MTV and PlayUK as well as CBBC… guess who they’re going to have to subscribe to?

The future of the company is uncertain, and they have not done anything to help themselves over the past year. However, Digital Terrestrial Television – as opposed to ITV Digital – must not be allowed to fail.

We cannot be allowed to slip into a nightmare world where every house must have a satellite dish in order to receive broadcasts, where a certain newspaper owner has a rather large control over what we watch and where the BBC becomes an ever smaller part of broadcasting, no more important than Sky One.

Digital Satellite has its place – but there are far too many people out there who don’t want to pay a monthly subscription, or even have digital at all.

For this reason I’m hoping that the new free-to-air boxes are a success. And also that ITV Digital re-opens its Monkey offer, because I really wanted one of those.

[Since this article was written, ITV Digital has 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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