Multichannel failure 

1 April 2002

It’s 22 March 2002, and I’m writing this after seeing the article on Media Guardian Online, informing me that ITV Digital may close down in 10 days time – a rather alarmist headline.

Whether ITV Digital will close down in a few days time, who knows? Well, by the time you get to read this article, we may well have a clear idea of what’s going on, but as I type, it’s all speculation and hearsay.

ITV Digital

Amazingly, I am rather unmoved by the potential of losing some of my digital channels. This is partly as I have been hearing rumours like this for as long as I’ve had a subscription and partly as I have come to realise how little pay TV I watch.

Whilst I watch a large number of the free to air channels, when it comes to pay TV, only Sky One seems to get a look in these days, mainly for “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek”.

There is a reason for this – there is just nothing else I want to watch on the other channels. True, I was never expecting to become addicted to the lowbrow Granada Men and Motors, and I’m don’t like DIY, so that rules out UK Style.

I didn’t watch Linda Green on BBC One, and I have no intention of watching it on UK Gold. I hate tennis and cycling, so no thanks for Eurosport.

When I flick through the channels on my ITV Digital box, most of the stations seem to be unfulfilled promises. The arrival of the Discovery Channel built up my hopes that I’d be watching documentaries every night, but when I want to watch it, I always seem to be presented with endless repeats of Time Team, or American shows about the police.

When the Paramount Comedy Channel came along, I was similarly excited. I knew it to be the home of repeats of “Drop the Dead Donkey” for starters – a programme I have long admired. What I found was a station that just seemed to show poor American sitcoms until late at night, leaving the British stuff to sit in the graveyard section of the schedule.

Being the kind of 24-year-old who lives life to the full, by the time 21:30 comes along I’m getting ready for bed. Watching 10-year-old Channel 4 sitcoms shown on late night just isn’t as exciting prospect as snuggling up under a kingsize duvet, with Fi Glover on the radio.

Besides the choice of programming, the other thing that puts me off watching programmes on pay-TV channels is the awful tactic of showing a programme every weeknight at the same time. As a scheduling tactic, this just doesn’t do it for me.

The simple fact is that, whilst I love Blackadder, I don’t want to watch it every night at nine as there are other programmes I want to watch, shown at the same time on different channels. I’m quite prepared to watch a show once a week in a regular time slot, but asking me to clear a set time slot every night of the week is just not going to happen.

Only one programme has so far managed to get any form of commitment out of me – the complete run of the wonderful “Larry Sanders Show” on PlayUK, and that took dedication and a lot of blank video tapes.

The endless diet of repeats offered by ITV Digital’s channels doesn’t inspire. Much as I like “The Simpsons” and “Fraiser”, there are only so many times I can watch each episode before they start to grate.

Okay, pay-TV isn’t all repeats, but if we’re going to be honest, digital channels mostly made up of original programming are in the minority.

When it does come along, I often watch it. I must confess to being a bit of a fan of Sky One’s “Time Gentlemen Please”, and became addicted to “Banzai” as soon as it launched on E4.

Both are new UK productions, and they quickly found a place in my viewing schedules.

New programming costs money though, and given the current state of advertising revenue, most channels aren’t prepared to spend.

Instead they rely on repeats and cheap imports. However, it is those imports and repeats that put me off watching.

All this leads nicely to a vicious circle where channels get less money to spend on new programming from the advertisers, because fewer people are watching because there is less new programming!

ITV Digital also needs an increase in channels. The closure of Granada Breeze, Wellbeing, Taste CFN and Shop! leaves plenty of capacity waiting to be filled.

ITV Digital’s precarious financial position, and constant rumours about closure, doesn’t particularly help to entice new channels to the platform though, despite the 1.1million potential viewers.

None of these changes look likely in the short term, but I’m being prepared for the service being given the chop. If ITV Digital does go, I won’t be sat at home complaining about the loss of my “favourite” channels, as the free-to-air ones I mostly watch will still be there.

Should closure occur, it seems unlikely that ITV Digital will try to take their set top boxes back, so BBC Four and ITV2 are safe for me.

Maybe the fact that there will no longer be several episodes of “The Simpsons” to watch will actually mean I’ll get a more varied diet of entertainment and factual programming.

Perhaps I’ll just try removing my box’s smart card for a week, just to see how my viewing habits change.

[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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