If you’d asked me a year ago to predict what I would be doing in
July 1998, I’d have said: ’watching the new digital TV services.’
But I was wrong to believe the dates Sky, in particular, gave. The
launch is pushed back to the autumn and many of the biggest operators in
the business, including Pace Micro Technology which manufactures set top
decoder boxes, and the BBC too, have been caught out. Pace’s share price
collapsed as a consequence: its PR people are currently beavering away
to rebuild its reputation.
Now this hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for multi-channel TV, interactive
TV services or even digital radio. But it has made me wary.
Neither the screens nor decoders are available for even a trial World
Cup football wide-screen service in, say 1,000 pubs. A great opportunity
has been thrown away. Manufacturers will next week launch a first
digital radio set, but the price is likely to be substantial.
The list of wasted media opportunities is building up too. Digital TV is
starting to move from the business/technology pages, only to fall into
that most basic of traps, lack of consumer availability.
So here’s a blueprint for the way ahead. I’m dismayed that information
has been out of sync with technical and business reality. The operators
should put hard-nosed marketing and PR people capable of delivering
honest clear messages at the right time in charge.
Prospective viewers have seen the hype but only 32 per cent, according
to BBC research, understand what is on offer - a figure uncannily close
to a separate Pace survey finding of 36 per cent. There is a vast
communications task ahead. I understand there is no point in spending
promotional budgets too early: BSkyB has allocated pounds 100 million to
marketing, BDB pounds 30-40 million, with untold ’free’ airtime from the
BBC and ITV pledged.
But I only hope the delay is being used to alight on positive consumer
messages about the forthcoming service, guaranteeing improved sound,
pictures, speed of access and more choices for everyone. Gritty news
coverage of digital has been disastrous: wars over standards; rows
between BSkyB (digital satellite) and BDB (digital terrestrial), with
cable hanging back. Stephen Grabiner, new BDB chief exectuvie has at
least tried to play down the clash, which is confusing the public. The
only person to produce a fresh idea has been Malcolm Miller, new chief
executive of Pace. Ex-Amstrad and a marketing man by trade, he has
suggested early digital adopters should be rewarded with a reduced BBC
licence fee. It won’t happen, but at least he understands that we all
like a deal.
Finally, no-one is going to subscribe to something called Channel 4B or
BDB. Deciding on catchy names is taking a very long time. Hurry on the