This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 10 July
The text here may not be identical to the published text
Digital television is spreading as the cost is being cut. All the major players now lend or give customers the electronic boxes needed to decode the digital signals. As a result of that offer the numbers subscribing to SkyDigital's satellite system and the terrestrial ONdigital (received through a standard television aerial) have soared - getting on for a million to Sky and around 250,000 to ONdigital. Last week, the first cable company entered the fray. Cable & Wireless Communications launched its digital television service in Manchester - other companies and other parts of the country will follow. In addition a home box office satellite service was launched this week by a Digital Broadcasting Company (DBC). Called udirect (correct) it offers 6 pay-per-view movies per night.
Anyone who is tempted should think of the cost and the benefits before plunging into the muddy waters of digital interactive wide-screen television.
The 'digital' part is a bit of an illusion. The television is basically the same. It is the signal which is transmitted digitally (in 0s and 1s rather than the analogue waves of traditional radio). The set-top box converts the digits back into old-fashioned analogue signals for the television to understand - a sort of modem in reverse. The result should be - and usually is - a clearer picture, free of interference. But the treat to your eyes does not extend to your ears - the sound of digital television is no better - and some say it is worse - than good Nicam analogue stereo.
The 'interactive' part has not really begun yet. When it does it will offer email, shopping banking, voting, choosing your own shots in football or cricket, even your own endings in soap operas. But none of that will happen this year and a lot of it will not happen next year either. So that leaves one big advantage - wide-screen.
But if you go into high street shops to look at wide-screen television it is NOT impressive. Fat people with elliptical faces are smeared out to cover an extra six inches down each side of the screen in a format the image was not intended for. But these ill-conceived demonstrations mask the glory of digital television. Much of the BBC, some of ITV and Channel 4 as well as a number of film channels all show true wide-screen television with images that have been originated to fit the cinema-style format. The ratio of width to height is 16 to 9 rather than the squarer 4 to 3 of the conventional set. But that only works with programmes or movies which are recorded in that format.
Unfortunately, all wide-screen televisions have a mode - beloved of electrical goods shops - which stretches even normal pictures to fill the full width of the screen. It looks horrible. Normal programmes should always be seen in the original format and wide-screen ones in wide-screen. Almost all wide-screen televisions have modes which allow that to happen - some do it automatically. Like colour, once someone has tried real wide-screen they never want to go back to a square television tube. You do not need a wide-screen set to have digital television, but without it you miss half the point. So the first cost is a new wide-screen television - they start from around £399 and go up to £2000 or more. Because the screen is wider, for the same vertical height of picture you need a bigger set. A 28 inch wide-screen has the same vertical height as a 21 inch regular television set. And because the depth of the set is related to the longest dimension of the screen, wide-screen televisions are deeper and bulkier - and many are made more so by big ugly plastic casings.
Once you've bought your television you need to choose who supplies the digital signal. The BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 all broadcast digitally and there is no charge for receiving their programmes. But to do that requires a set-top box decoder and they cost around £400 to buy. Some integrated televisions are coming on the market with the decoder built in. But there are cheaper ways. If you subscribe to ONdigital or - where it is available - a cable company then you get the box free. But you have to commit yourself to a one year subscription, which costs a minimum of £84 a year, and pay up to £40 for installation. Alternatively you can get a free satellite set-top box. One way is to subscribe to SkyDigital - minimum cost £84 for the first year plus £40 installation.
Or you can simply agree to connect your phone line to the box and link up to the Open service of British Interactive Broadcasting. At the moment that does nothing - and even when it does you are not obliged to take any service or spend any money. You just have to agree to leave your line connected for 12 months. You do have to pay for your own satellite dish installation - around £100 - but that allows you to receive all the free channels from the BBC (though not ITV or ITV2) and the home box office service of DBC.
SkyDigital via satellite
Coverage - almost all the UK - some problems in shared or flatted accommodation
Set-top box - free Installation - £40
Channels - 50 general (excludes ITV and ITV2), 50 audio and around 15 pay-per-view movies each day
Subscription - Minimum £7 Middling £20 (ValuePack + 1 sports channel) Maximum £32 plus pay-per-view movies and sport
Bonuses - cheaper BT phone calls
udirect films via satellite (cable coming)
Set-top box - free
Installation - £100 (or use Sky) Channels - pay as you go movies 5 or 6 a week, start every 30 minutes.
Subscription - nil Each film £1.99 or £2.99
ONdigital - via ordinary (not too old) television aerial
Coverage - 75% of homes in UK - target of 90% by end 1999.
Set-top box - free Installation - DIY but £40 if aerial engineer needed Channels - 33
Subscription Minimum £6.99 Middling (6 primary channels and one premium channel) £20.99 Maximum £35.98
Bonuses - cheaper BT phone calls coming soon
Cable & Wireless Communications - via cable Coverage - Now:
Manchester and Northwest only; End of 1999 - 2 million homes.
Set-top box - free
Installation - £50 (free to existing customers)
Channels - around 70
Subscription Minimum £9.98 Middling £18.98 Maximum £28.45
Bonuses - (includes telephone line and cheaper phone calls through Cable & Wireless)
Other cable - via cable
NIL - NTL will commence in September 1999; Telewest in October
Set-top box - probably free
Installation - probably free
Channels - not known
Subscription - not known
Bonuses - not known.
10 July 1999