Digital delights

23 Oct 2006

The drive towards digital television is on. This autumn, the Government is to trial digital terrestrial television for a two-year period and nine candidates have applied to provide the content, among them BT Ireland, Magnet Business, Sky Ireland and Channel Six, and the EU has recommended 2012 as a switch-off date for analogue transmission.

Digital television is already among us, however, with close to 700,000 Irish households already subscribing to digital satellite or cable/MMDS services from either Sky (427,000) or UPC Ireland (formerly NTL and Chorus, with over 260,000).

As television embarks on its mission to colonise the mobile handset, Irish people soon won’t be able to get away from the TV’s omnipotent glare.

With the proliferation of choice, one might think we’ve reached the mecca of entertainment services. Still, back in the Eighties Bruce Springsteen sang: “57 channels and there’s nothing on.” Would the Boss subscribe to digital television today?

Simon Kelehan, content and product manager of UPC Ireland, understandably believes he would, such is the choice on offer with digital TV. The Boss would probably be using it to catch up on American pro-football while sinking a beer with some of his blue-collar mates.

“The drivers for digital TV was premium sports,” says Kelehan. “The early adopters on the innovation curve were people subscribing to Sky Sports and Sky Movies.”

The profile of the typical digital TV subscriber has morphed since then, however. Older couples and parents buying it for children’s programming have come on board strongly. The catalyst for this uptake among the ranks of the non-sports minded is price, says Kelehan.

“We’re finding more and more it’s broadening out to families. Because of our pricing, people are getting into digital who typically wouldn’t have been a core market before: people with grown-up kids, people getting digital TV to catch up on their favourite soaps, drama series and factual programmes.”

“Viewers welcome the improved quality of reception, the breadth of choice and the flexibility associated with digital television,” says Mark Deering, deputy managing director of Sky Ireland.

First and foremost, what wins people over to digital TV is, quite simply, the amount of channels.

“It’s a wider choice of viewing,” says Kelehan. “People have diverse interests and are time limited now, with long commutes and so on. Some of the best-rating programmes on digital TV are things like UK Gold, which has access to the full archive of BBC programmes over the years. You turn on UK gold and you know that one of your old favourites is going to be there; you’re going to enjoy it.

Children’s programming is also proving attractive. “We’ve got nearly 15 kids channels, ranging from pre-school to 6-12 to teenager,” explains Kelehan. “You’ll find that sales of DVDs and videos for kids has gone right down compared to the advent of digital TV.”

This offers cost saving straight away, claims Kelehan. “In my household the €5 extra a month for digital would be justified on that alone.”

Entire rain forests would be lost if newspapers had to print the schedules of digital TV. Like the internet, quantity isn’t everything: you need to know where to go. That’s where the electronic programming guide (EPG) comes in with digital TV. This doesn’t just let you abstain from shifting your butt to change the channel but allows you to properly plan your viewing days in advance.

The EPG allows viewers to, at the click of a button, view details about the programme they’re watching — such as director, stars, year, plot summary and duration and how long it’s been on. You can find out what’s on next and what’s on the other channels without leaving your current channel. You can set reminders for programmes and your TV will automatically tune to the programme you want to see at that time.

You can effectively plan your viewing schedule days in advance, saving you wasted channel-hopping time and frustration at having missed good shows. Instead of making you watch more TV, with digital you could potentially cut out the chaff and concentrate on consuming the wheat, thereby reducing total viewing hours per week.

Programming with digital TV is bunched thematically so it’s easy to find what shows you want to see and programme them in.
There are other factors that draw people into the world of digital television, says Deering. “The picture quality is a lot sharper, the sound quality is better and in addition to the channels you get on terrestrial TV, you will get a much wider choice of channels, as well as interactive services such as shopping, games, on-screen TV listings and extra programming content.”

Other big draws for digital TV is digital recording. With Sky+, consumers can record on average up to 40 hours of material without tapes. Series can be recorded at the touch of a button and it’s also possible to record two programmes at once.
UPC plans on launching a digital recording service by the end of this year.

“The convenience factor becomes important but the ultimate driver that wins people over is the choice of content,” emphasises Kelehan.

Mobile TV kill the video star?

Steve McCormack, CEO of digital media content provider Wildwave, prefers the term mobile video to mobile TV. As a large amount of what is considered to be mobile TV is pre-recorded material, such as downloadable highlights packages and short clips, it’s more comparable to video on demand than traditional television broadcasting, he reasons.

“The vast majority of services worldwide is non-broadcast delivery, it’s delivered over IP,” he explains. “Within that context you’ve three different types: you have a TV channel that’s streamed, like Sky’s deal with Vodafone; you’ve video on demand, where you just scroll and pick a video yourself; and then you’ve non-television channel streaming, which doesn’t necessarily come from a TV station already, ie made-for-mobile channels.

Currently, the vast majority of content is repurchased content from other mediums, eg clips that should be on TV or film, he says. “What’s best suited to mobile is short-form content, due to battery life and attention spans; you probably won’t get beyond the five-minute mark. Things like music videos, short films, news bulletins and sports highlights work particularly well.”

Despite being in the tentative early stages (DVB-H, a technical specification for bringing digital broadcast services to handhelds, has only been launched this year in Italy by 3), revenue from mobile video and content services has the potential to skyrocket in the future, McCormack predicts.

“There are roughly two billion phone customers in the world and there’s about one billion television sets. Already this could be the biggest medium ever, even bigger than the internet,” he says.

“At the moment we see about 5pc of the mobile user base use these services. If we can even get that to 20pc, that’s a massive amount of revenue that can be generated.”

Advertising will form a large part of revenue generation, McCormack predicts, as providers will offer more free content to win customers over to mobile TV and video.

“We don’t think it’s all going to be pay content; a huge amount of it’s going to be free but ad supported. At the very least we’ll see something in the region of 50pc of all content will be ad supported.”

By Niall Byrne