Get it ON

Get it ON110,000 and counting….digital TV broadcaster ONdigital has started well and should continue in this vein as it battles against satellite rival Sky. Alex Mayhew-Smith reports on the digital TV contest
So digital terrestrial television broadcaster ONdigital has notched up 110,000 subscribers, a figure better than most people in the industry expected. One disbelieving journalist at ONdigital’s press conference even asked how we could trust that the figure was correct.
According to the market research company GfK, which records sales of consumer electronics by till receipts, ONdigital had sold 63,349 receivers by March 13. The broadcaster responded by saying GfK usually underestimated sales of product launches.
However, there is no real reason to suspect ONdigital of massaging the figures and indeed, every reason to expect good subscriber numbers for their service. What’s available now?
BSkyB’s Sky Digital satellite service has been running since October 1. It has over 350,000 subscribers and offers about 150 channels, including audio channels. It covers the whole country.
The basic Sky service costs ?6.99 a month and includes six channels, as well as the free-to-air channels.
ONdigital launched on November 15 last year and recently reported subscriber figures of 110,000. It covers 75 per cent of households and has 25 channels available. The primary service of 12 channels costs ?7.99 a month for 3 months and then ?9.99 thereafter.
No cable digital TV service is yet available, although NTL has begun an Internet style interactive service down a BTphone line. Cable & Wireless will roll out its service soon, NTL will start service in the summer and Telewest in the last quarter of the year.  
Certainly, with a figure of 110,000 new subscribers, ONdigital has done well but it is too early to talk about who is winning the subscriber wars. Although ONdigital’s CEO Stephen Grabiner said his company had signed up more new subscribers than satellite broadcasting rival Sky like-for-like over the same start up period, such a comparison alone gives little indication about how the industry will shape up.
It is early days, as a spokesman at Sky says. Another important difference is that the services are selling to different audiences. Grabiner describes ONdigital’s subscribers as “very middle England”, made up of young married couples and, more significantly the 50 plus age group.
The latter is an area that ONdigital feels it has an advantage in. It sells to people who do not want a satellite dish on the side of their house but are attracted to the wider range of channels offered by digital TV. In other words, these people are looking for a service which is as easy as traditional terrestrial TV but with more channels.
It is with the introduction of integrated TVs – these are TV sets with the digital set-top receiver built-in – that the industry will really start to get interesting. The TVs will have a fuss-less advantage in that all the consumer need do is buy a TV and put in a telephone call to subscribe to ONdigital. If the price is right, many people buying a new TV will probably opt for one with built in digital capability because they might as well.
TV manufacturers Bush will make the cheapest ONdigital integrated sets, for ?500 and plan to produce around 100,000 sets. Grabiner says 3.5 million sets are sold every year in the UK and clearly the big subscriber numbers will come from the integrated sets. “Digital televisions will be important this Christmas,” says Grabiner, who predicts digital TVs will take over from standard sets.
An integrated TV for Sky Digital, made by Pace Micro Technology and LG, is already on the market. Sanyo, Sharp, LG, Toshiba will all follow the market with their own ONdigital integrated sets before the year end.
Although Sky has the advantage in the number of channels it offers, ONdigital says it will be quality that wins subscribers.
The Sky spokesman says: “I have heard the argument that people want a choice but not too much choice. I don’t think it is true. It will be about catering to an individuals needs – to be able to watch what you want and when you want.”
Talk of winners before all the fancy interactive services are available on digital services is premature. It will be some while – years even – before such a judgement can be made.
However many subscribers ONdigital has attracted, its simplicity – the integrated TV and no need for a dish on the wall – will be a big selling point in the coming year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *