British government stands firm on switch-off date

British culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, insists the Government can meet the 2010 deadline for switching off the analogue TV signal, despite warnings it could cost the consumer up to GBP 10 billion.

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By  Marcus Webb Published  April 1, 2002

The British government is still insisting it can meet the 2010 deadline for switching off the analogue TV signal despite the apparent failure of ITV Digital.

The culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, said the switch-off was scheduled for some time between 2006 and 2010, subject to the affordability of digital TV.

"In a year's time we all expect the future will different. We are the digital leader in the world," she told Radio 4's Today programme. Ms Jowell's upbeat mood was in marked contrast to the dire warnings being issued by media pundits following the collapse of ITV Digital.

David Elstein, the former BSkyB director of programmes and Channel 5's chief executive, claimed that getting Britain hooked up to digital television could cost the consumer up to GBP10 billion. Speaking on Murdoch-owned Sky News, Elstein claimed: "This is going to cost the consumer a huge amount of money, possibly GBP10 billion to the public purse." He said all of digital TV had proved an absolute licence to lose money and condemned terrestrial digital television as a "disaster".

"NTL is virtually broke. Sky has lost [GBP] 1 billion, ITV Digital has lost [GBP] 1 billion. If this is competition, then please bring back monopoly." Mr Elstein was dismissive of the entire digital terrestrial television project, describing it as a "disaster" and noting that consumers could be left to pick up the cost. "What digital terrestrial television offered was a low-grade version of multi-channel television which the government, for whatever reason, wanted.”

The Financial Times commentated that the government's media policies were now "in turmoil" and warned ministers not to attempt to prop up a third pay-per-view platform. "ITV Digital was a commercial venture that went wrong. There is no case for government intervention," it said.

Ms Jowell was adamant the government would not bail out ITV Digital with taxpayers' money even though several football clubs could close as a result of losing their broadcast contracts. She also said there should be a third alternative to the digital platforms on offer from BSkyB and cable.

At present, only 40 per cent of the British public has access to digital TV, and ministers have always maintained they will never switch off the analogue signal until 95 per cent has been converted. But some government sources believe many households are deliberately holding out in the belief that one day they will be given free set-top boxes, an offer Ms Jowell has so far declined to make.

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