ITV DIGITAL COLLAPSE: From Day One, Everything about ITV Digital Was a Turn-Off (except for the Monkey)

By David Lister and Saeed Shah | The Independent (London, England), March 28, 2002 | Go to article overview
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ITV DIGITAL COLLAPSE: From Day One, Everything about ITV Digital Was a Turn-Off (except for the Monkey)

David Lister and Saeed Shah, The Independent (London, England)

"THIS IS not the end of digital terrestrial television in the UK," vowed Tessa Jowell last night.

But, tellingly, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport did not elaborate on how it could be saved - nor did she reflect on how Rupert Murdoch's position as supreme gatekeeper of the world of digital television would inevitably tighten his grip on Britain's broadcasting culture.

Rarely, perhaps never, have all three aspects of Ms Jowell's portfolio overlapped so emphatically as in yesterday's collapse of ITV Digital. A key player in Britain's media went into administration; culture - in as much as broadcasting is synonymous with the word - came more firmly under the grip of Mr Murdoch, and sport received a body blow, with the ending of ITV Digital cash threatening the existence of up to 30 Football League clubs.

Yet the crisis has been signposted right from ITV Digital's untidy birth. Technical niggles and bizarre programming inconsistencies quickly made it something of a joke in media circles.

Indeed, an ITV Digital subscriber trying to follow the service's demise yesterday would have been unable to access the story via the ITN News Channel. That is only available to ITV Digital for a couple of hours around dawn each day. ITV1 and ITV2 would have been available, although the picture might well have frozen from time to time.

When Ulrika Jonsson gave the service, then called ONdigital, its celebrity launch in 1998, it carried the hopes of viewers keen to avoid having a dish on their roofs and just as keen to avoid inviting Mr Murdoch into their homes.

Tempting fate, the company was based in the same building that once housed the doomed satellite service, BSB.

More seriously, its then chief executive, Stephen Grabiner, confessed as soon as he launched the service in November 1998 that there were not enough set-top boxes for the Christmas shopping rush. He didn't have to worry about things for too long. By July 1999, Mr Grabiner had resigned, and later sued ITV.

Then, under the new chief executive, Stuart Prebble, there was a rush of blood to the head - and of cash to the Football League. The now infamous sum of pounds 315m was paid to the Nationwide League for rights to show its games. It was never going to be economical, and, of course, in recent weeks the ITV companies have tried to renegotiate the deal.

For viewers, Nationwide games were never going to compare with Sky's Premier League offerings and, despite holding the rights to Champions League games, the ITV Sports Channel was never going to have the allure of the Sky Sports service.

The service was hit by a massive "churn" rate - subscribers cancelling, with offers of free (and technologically superior) set- top boxes and dishes from Sky helping the exodus. For all the social embarrassment of having a Sky dish, it would bring 300 channels, compared to ITV Digital's 40. And ITV Digital still only reached 60 per cent of the country.

Muddle-headed programming decisions were made. The subscribers who had taken an anti-Murdoch or anti-dish stance may well have wanted some upmarket programming. But while they got niche channels such as Granada Men & Motors or Carlton Food Network, it was Sky's viewers who were able to tune into ArtsWorld. ITV Digital also turned down Disney and Discovery, the latter given a slot just a few weeks ago.

Last year, in an optimistic corporate rebranding exercise, the service dropped its original name, ONdigital, to become ITV Digital. But even this, and a clever advertising campaign featuring the comedian Johnny Vegas and a talking monkey, could not stem the tide. Most tellingly, while the replica monkeys that came free with every subscription fetched hundreds of pounds in internet auctions, the set-top boxes could barely be given away.

In three-and-a-half years, ITV Digital consumed pounds 750m of the ITV companies' cash to attract 1.

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ITV DIGITAL COLLAPSE: From Day One, Everything about ITV Digital Was a Turn-Off (except for the Monkey)


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