If you live in one of the six million UK households that still don't receive any digital TV services at all, there's a chance this whole entertainment revolution has left you a little bewildered – especially since the launch in May of yet another digital service, Freesat.
But be warned, doing nothing isn't an option. Your traditional, 'analogue' TV service is about to disappear forever. So, what's happening, why is it necessary, and what can you do about it?
A little history
Once upon a time, telly was very, very easy. You plugged it into the power, you plugged in an aerial, you switched it on. Then you made sure it was tuned into the one and only TV channel on offer. BBC Television didn't have a number back then. It didn't need one. There wasn't anything else.
Then, in 1955, everything changed. A series of regional TV services, under the banner 'ITV', began to appear. They were followed in 1964 by a second BBC channel – called, elegantly enough, BBC2. And this one broadcast in 625 lines, with far better picture quality than the old 405-line system. They called this revolution 'high definition'!
The history of TV in the UK is a story of change. Perhaps not constant or rapid change at first, but change nonetheless. Whether it was an addition to the channel line-up, the arrival of colour, or the addition of teletext, there was at least one major development in every decade from the 1940s to the 1980s. To take full advantage of most of them, you would have needed to buy a new TV.
In the 1980s, the pace of change really accelerated. The launch of two rival satellite systems and dozens of local cable TV franchises heralded a new age of multi-channel television. There were dozens of channels to choose from, and pretty quickly there subscriptions to be paid to receive them.
But it wasn't until the late 1990s when things really began to get confusing. That was when digital TV services started to appear, and that was when the first whisperings of major change were heard – a time when there would be no more analogue TV transmissions at all, and every household in the country would be forced to choose a digital service provider. Even households that had never had multichannel TV, and never wanted to.
The experts reasoned that the doubters could be won round with promises of more channels and more interactive services, thanks to the increased carrying capacity of digital TV signals compared to analogue. But then, every revolution has its casualties, and the first casualty of the digital revolution was OnDigital, a company that thought if it offered multichannel digital TV that you could receive via a traditional aerial, then all the people who didn't want a satellite dish or a cable box on the front of their house, would rush out and buy its digital set-top boxes instead.
OnDigital got it badly wrong, emphasising its subscription channels and making too little of the fact that on its service, free channels like the BBC would still be free. When OnDigital flopped, ITV Digital, which re-launched the business in 2001, made an even bigger mess by paying too much for the rights to screen lower division football, then finding out too late that people didn't want to pay for it.
It took a consortium led by the BBC to establish that some people simply don't want to pay for TV channels and are never going to. They took over digital terrestrial transmissions, dubbed them 'Freeview', and the digital revolution was back on track.
Things have remained more or less the same since. The only guest at the digital party we've not considered so far is Freesat, but we'll come back to that later.
Why has analogue got to go?
Analogue hasn't got to go, strictly speaking, but digital TV technology can squeeze half a dozen or more channels into the space occupied by just one analogue channel, so it's a far more efficient use of radio waves.
And ever since the Government made billions out of selling radio frequencies to 3G mobile phone companies, it has had its beady eye on the frequencies currently used for analogue TV. If analogue transmissions are shut down, then those frequencies can be flogged off to the highest bidder.
Going, going, gone ...
If you live in Whitehaven, then none of this is news to you, because your analogue TV signals disappeared earlier this year. Barring some small-scale trials, yours is the first – and, to date, only – digital-only town in the UK.
If you don't – and that's most of you – then some time between the end of this year and the end of 2012, your analogue signals are destined to go the same way as Whitehaven's. That is, someone will switch one of them off, and if it all works as planned, the rest will follow a couple of weeks later.
If you're served by a main transmitter, then Freeview – digital TV through your aerial – is probably already available, but it will broadcast at higher power after switch-over and you may get additional channels. If you point your aerial at a fill-in transmitter, the type often used in areas where TV reception is difficult, then it probably doesn't broadcast Freeview signals yet, and it won't do so until switch-over day.
A number of different websites can tell you which transmitter you're likely to be using, whether it's a 'main' or a 'fill-in' one, and when it will switch over to digital. www.ukfree.tv
is worth a look. It also has a lot of detail on the different ways you can get digital TV.
Why all digital TV is not the same
What, I hear you ask, different ways to get digital TV? Yes. There are several. In fact, the situation is a little more complex than most people will tell you, because there are always independent, hobbyist, knock-it-up-in-your-spare-room ways of doing things that those in the know get very passionate about, but which only tend to confuse the rest of us.
In the interests of keeping things as simple as possible, I'm going to insist that there are basically four ways of getting digital TV, and we'll look at each one in turn.
They are Freeview, cable, Sky and Freesat, and each offers a different mix of channels, different levels of interactivity and a different approach to the thorny issue of subscription.
This is the biggie. Freeview, post analogue switch-off, will be the basic terrestrial TV service in the UK, the nearest thing to a direct replacement for the current set-up.
Most homes that receive Freeview currently do so via a set-top box, which receives the digital signals and then passes them on to an existing analogue TV in a way the TV can understand. Increasingly, new TVs have a Freeview digital tuner built in. This simply means that you plug your aerial straight into the back, you don't need a set top box and you don't need separate remote controls to switch on the TV and then change the channels. The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that this simply gets us back to where we were at the end of the 1980s, except this time without extra cables, boxes and of course, subscription payments.
The consortium behind Freeview – the BBC, Sky and a transmitter company called Crown Castle – don't run it to make money. They run it to ensure the great British public have access to a basic digital TV service, with a properly agreed standard for delivering interactive content, such as digital teletext services and an electronic programme guide that lets you see what's on each of the channels for up to a week ahead.
It is possible to get subscription channels via your aerial, using a service called TopUp TV. We're not going to muddy the waters by looking at that just now.
Once upon a time, almost every major town and city in the UK had a local cable franchise. Each cable company spent millions upon millions, digging trenches in the road and laying cables past as many homes as they could. By the time they realised that it was going to cost them a lot more to lay the cable than they could get back from selling TV and telephone services within a reasonable period, it was too late.
A round of consolidation ensued, until today there is just one, very big cable company – Virgin Media – and less than a handful of small, local ones, in places like Hull and on the Isle of Wight.
Virgin Media now offers digital TV to almost all its subscribers, but you do have to be a subscriber to get it. Its cheapest package charges you line rental for a telephone service and then lends you a set-top box for free, which in turn delivers a reasonable, if limited, range of digital TV channels. If you like, you can increase your payments and get more channels, or pay even more and start watching premium channels that carry films or sport.
The way a cable network works means that Virgin Media is also able to offer an unrivalled video-on-demand service, with a library of films and TV shows to choose from.
The only real drawback to this is that you have to live in a cabled street to be able to subscribe to it. The cable industry in the UK is now very wary of the costs of expansion and it's very unlikely that your street will ever get cabled if it hasn't been done already – even if all the streets around you have it.
Two rival satellite services launched at the end of the 1980s; Sky, and British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB). Both began to lose money heavily and eventually they merged to form British Sky Broadcasting.
While the company is still referred to as B-Sky-B, it has always marketed its service as 'Sky'. Some time after the merger, BSB customers found out who really wore the trousers in this corporate relationship when their distinctive BSB 'squarial' aerials stopped working, forcing them to switch to a Sky dish.
Like cable, the service was analogue to start with, but unlike cable, Sky has long since ended its analogue service and is a digital-only service provider.
Sky markets a similar range of subscription-based channel packages to cable. You pay Sky a monthly fee to receive these. However it's also possible to get a basic set of channels without a subscription if you pay Sky the full cost of your set-top box and satellite dish (subscribers get these at a knock-down price). They call this service 'Freesat From Sky'.
What Sky is normally shy of admitting is, the overwhelming majority of channels you can get via a Sky satellite dish are free in any case, and work whether or not you have one of Sky's decoder cards inserted into the set-top box. But some of the popular free channels are scrambled to prevent them being picked up outside the UK, so you need Sky's card in the front of the set top box if you want to view them.
'Freesat From Sky' is not to be confused with 'Freesat', the newest way to get digital TV in the UK.
Freesat is a similar proposition to Freeview. It's aimed at people who aren't interested in subscription-based TV services. There are a couple of differences though. The first is, Freesat should help bring free digital TV to remote parts of the UK which won't ever get a decent quality terrestrial TV signal, even from Freeview after analogue switch-off.
With Freesat, the BBC and ITV, who are marketing it, can ensure that everyone in the UK who wants digital TV, can get digital TV, complete with an electronic programme guide and interactive services that are modelled on the ones provided by Freeview. Freesat can guarantee not to chase people who buy Freesat boxes, to try to persuade them to upgrade to a subscription package they don't want, because Freesat is not geared up to operate subscription services.
The second difference is, satellite TV is very, very good at delivering the next big thing in TV – high definition.
And finally ... for now
A recent estimate put the number of brand new high definition (HD) TVs in British homes at about 12 million. But the number of homes subscribing to the HD services available from Virgin Media and Sky amount to less than one million.
Simple maths suggests that there are 11 million households in the UK where an HD TV is sitting in the corner of the front room without any way of receiving HD TV signals.
Everyone who owns a HDTV, and wants to use it to receive a decent range of HD TV channels, is either going to have to subscribe to Sky or Virgin. If they want to go down the non-subscription route, they can use Freesat, or, starting from some time in 2009, HD is planned Freeview.
Freesat is carrying the BBC's HD channel, ITV-HD, and has plenty of room for many more HD channels in future. And one TV manufacturer, Panasonic, is about to launch a HDTV with a Freesat tuner built in, meaning it can be hooked up directly to a satellite dish to receive free HD channels without the use of a set top box and without any subscription.
In time, up to four HD channels could be made available on Freeview, though it is still under discussion. The North-West is likely to get a HD Freeview channel first, some time in 2009. You'll need a HD-capable STB, of course.
Which brings us back to the 1980s again – except this time, with crystal clear, crisp, detailed TV pictures. I wonder what Prisoner: Cell Block H would have looked like in HD?