These Isles are Alive with the Buzz of D1g1ts

By Brian Winston

Digital launch time last autumn. The TV screen keeps filling up with animated noughts and ones. It’s the BBC explaining how digital broadcasting “works” again. They used the same image in the glossy brochure they produced, BBC Digital: The Adventure Starts Here, with this helpful added explication: “Digital broadcasting uses computer technology. It converts sound and pictures into a series of digits (noughts and ones) and is transmitted through the air using modified transmitters which are then received by television aerials.”

This is more than just an absurd failure to outline even the basic concept of pulse code modulation. These floating noughts and ones symbolise the breathtaking technological ignorance that has led us to the current digital silliness.

Digital television is available from BSkyB as a de facto alternative to its analogue services, and from a new terrestrial broadcaster, part-owned by Carlton and Granada, ONdigital. Skydigital was claiming 450,000 digital subscriptions by April ’99. Of these 160,000 were new; and 42% of Sky’s new customers were apparently going for digital. The market was delighted and, happily attributing the 59% fall in Sky’s interim profits to digital start-up costs, nevertheless added 15% to the value of its shares. On the other hand, if you take as significant that less than half of Sky’s new punters are going digital and that only one in ten of their existing 3.2 million customers had “upgraded” you probably, like me, don’t own too many BSkyB shares.

As for ONdigital, a digital service available for anybody with a TV who is prepared to buy a decoder box, they initially didn’t seem to have any subscribers at all — leastways none they were prepared to talk about. Launched a month after Skydigital, they were blaming the decoder manufacturers for failing to get the boxes into the shops for the Christmas rush even before the “Christmas rush” began. They had received, they said, 150,000 inquiries but Philips could only make up to 3000 boxes a day. It’s a great spin, but it cannot disguise the fact that eventually, when they were forced to reveal something in April, they could only nerve themselves to claim 110,000 subscribers. They need, it is said, 2 million to break even, which at this rate is going to take about six years to achieve. Granada and Carlton are now threatening to pull their most popular programming from ITV for first runs on ONdigital. A desperate analogue Peter appears to be prepared to rob himself to pay an unpopular digital Paul. They’re throwing a digital party but almost none of us have thus far bothered to attend.

And quite right too.

Skydigital’s launch publicity piece claims that: “Digital quality sound and picture are far superior to analogue transmission — you will be able to really see and hear the difference.” Will you really? On your old analogue TV receiver? This is exactly like asserting that if they transmit Fantasia in colour and stereo-sound, you’ll “really see and hear the difference” even on your old black and white monoaural TV. Next thing they’ll be telling us the air is full of invisible noughts and ones.

Hence ONdigital’s difficulties. Their scheme was that, late in 1998, we would all rush to buy a £200 box which allows us to use our existing tellies to obtain some 30 channels, 5 of which we already receive. None of these (nor Skydigital’s) are digital when they hit our eyeballs because the box will have “decoded” them for display on our analogue sets. Then, according to this cunning plan, a little later we were all to throw out our £200 box and the television that sits beneath it, and acquire instead a widescreen, properly digital, high-definition receiver. That we seem not to be buying into this lunacy can only be good news.

Sky, Granada and Carlton shareholders look set to pay for what is developing into an expensive decoder-box/625 line detour on the way to the hi-def digital TV standard as a result of a particularly potent mix of neo-liberal dogma and our usual technological ignorances.

Here’s the neo-liberal dogma from the mouth of Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, to the members of the Royal Television Society last autumn: “The Government has a part to play of course. Ours is an important, albeit a supporting role: facilitating and enabling the developments that your initiative will drive.”

Driving initiatives is a very inefficient way to produce a standard, which is why the history of communication systems, which need standards to work as communication systems in the first place, is full of Berlin Radio Conventions, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, the Baird/EMI experimental TV tests, the National Television Standards Committee, the World Administrative Radio Conference, and so on and so on. A four-year-old child can grasp this but not, in my experience, the average orthodox economist.

Smith is ready to accept responsibility to set a date for the “analogue switch-off” but washes his hands of the high-def digital switch-on. This is, I would argue, a big mistake, not least because the industry (engineers apart) really does seem to believe the air is now full of invisible noughts and ones.

Transforming light and sound into transmittable electrical signals – modulation – can be done in various ways. None of these actually impacts on the cultural content of the signal, although its quality will be affected – unless you insist on draining that quality away (as it were). Of itself moving to digital is about as interesting as moving from Amplitude Modulation to Frequency Modulation.

Because fundamental concepts like modulation are seemingly beyond them, the pros then misunderstand “convergence” – the buzz word which supposedly explains why so much more is possible with digital than with analogue. The professional talk, here articulated by the BBC’s Patricia Hodgson, states: “Digital technology permits broadcast, telecoms and computing services to be offered through the same machine.”

But what can this possibly mean? That digital pulse-code modulation allows a stream of digits encoding an audio signal to be displayed on a television cathode-ray tube? That a data-stream encoding video will play through a loudspeaker? Obviously this cannot be what is being suggested, but if it is not then some hard-pressed Korean chaebol (conglomerate) could have long since offered a frequency modulated analogue TV/phone/CD/video with digital computer attached — a TVVPCDPC. So digital, so what? And as for that one machine nonsense, no household with a teenager will want it for starters.

As a result of signal compression, the only convergence between broadcasting and computing which really matters, digital allows five or six signals to go where only one analogue one has gone before. But, again, so what? Many satellite and cable systems deliver more channels than, historically, the punters have seemed able to consume locally.

Since viewers still have to work, eat and sleep, increasing choice reduces audiences and smaller audiences produce truncated production budgets. Professionals, in this case independent producer Peter Bennett Jones, then twitter on about how ever cheaper productions will transform the medium: “Television will become more like magazine publishing: a whole range from cheap and cheerful to expensive and glossy.”

No it won’t. All we know suggests that audience tolerance for cheap and cheerful is more than somewhat attenuated. They expect production values, which in Hollywood prime-time drama are currently running at upwards of $1.5 million an hour. Other genres are cheaper, but none is as cheap as print. And if the audience leeches away you can’t have a “range”. Big audiences are needed for the big bucks which are needed for the big production values which are needed for the big audiences. (Where’s that four-year-old child?) Moreover the move to a high-def 1000+ line standard, with extremely expensive equipment, will of itself stop all accountant bean-counting fantasies of ever cheaper production costs.

And interactivity? Oh – prove it already! There is not a scintilla of evidence that story-telling and shopping are about to be transformed by the floaty noughts and ones. On the contrary, when offered interactive television the public have each and every time ignored it. (See – and mark well – such things as Warner Communications’ defunct QUBE cable system of the early ’80s).

The context for this litany of ignorance, error, assumption and assertion is an almost universal, but nevertheless amnesiac, belief that we are faced with a sudden technological revolution. Wrong. Actually we are in the sixty-first year of the digital age. The first contrivance to use digital sampling of an analogue signal was built in 1938, using basic sampling formulae which had been outlined a decade earlier. The first digital device to be marketed was a professional audio-tape recorder in 1971.

On this rocky road to digital high-def television the only people making any sense are, of course, the engineers. (Unfortunately one cannot include in their number the most eminent broadcaster with an engineering background, Sir John Birt. He has become an arch “bet-the-company” digitiser.)

But take, for example, the assumption about ever cheaper production costs, grounded in the current vogue for low-cost digital video. Peter Culvert-Smith, senior technologist at BBC Resources, revealed more than a year ago that this could not continue into the high-def era of wide-screen anamorphic lenses. The lenses are huge, heavier than the little camcorder. No more DVD, then. Or note, before you feel your analogue TV is really threatened, that NTL, the national TV and cable transmission company, has recently signed contracts with the commercial channels for analogue services until 2012. NTL, however, thinks that even then analogue will not be over – fifteen years minimum is its bet.

So until somebody (Mr Smith?) announces, in considerable technical detail, what the new digital high-definition television standard will be, and when services using it will commence transmission, my advice is ignore the noughts and ones.

Brian Winston is head of the School of Communication, Design and Media at the University of Westminster. His Media Technology and Society: a History from the Telegraph to the Internet is published by Routledge.