Digital switchover of television and radio in the United Kingdom - Communications Committee Contents

Digital switchover of television and radio in the United Kingdom

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  The Committee decided to undertake an inquiry into digital switchover as it affects both television and radio in the United Kingdom. The programme to switch over television broadcasting from analogue to digital is now well under way having started in 2008. The Government's aim for radio—as set out in its White Paper Digital Britain—"is the delivery of a digital radio upgrade programme by the end of 2015". It soon became clear in our inquiry that the major questions concerned radio.

2.  By the end of March 2010 about a fifth of television viewers will have switched over and the programme appears to have run relatively smoothly. The major qualification concerns the Help Scheme where there was a very significant overestimate of the number who would take up assistance. The estimate was that 65 per cent of those eligible would claim. The figures show that the proportion of those eligible who have claimed is only 18 per cent. It means that BBC licence fee payers—the scheme was funded through the licence fee—are likely to have paid between £250m and £300m above what was necessary. In addition the licence fee, which is a regressive tax, has also provided £50m above what is necessary for the communications strategy.

3.  One of the advantages of the television switchover programme was that the benefits of digital delivery were well accepted and understood. In contrast the case for change in radio is not as compelling. The surveys show that there is strong public satisfaction with the present FM system and with the range of programmes that are provided. The case for radio switchover has not been made to the public although the date of switchover is only a few years away.

4.  Currently there is public confusion and industry uncertainty. The public are not yet convinced of the need for change and there are major issues of policy still to be settled. Evidence supplied to the committee suggests that between 50m and 100m radios could become redundant and will need to be replaced; while some 20m car radios will require converters in order to receive a digital signal. As it stands at present the entire cost of these changes will be borne by consumers.

5.  At present we are in the unhappy position where consumers are still buying analogue radios although they may be out of date in a few years' time—or, at best, of limited use. Retailers are not giving sufficient guidance to customers and complain of a lack of guidance themselves. Car manufacturers are continuing to fit analogue radios and say that 2013 is the earliest date when digital will be standard. Radio broadcasters are currently being required to meet the extra cost of dual transmission in analogue and digital—which particularly hits the hard pressed commercial radio sector.

6.  No one can be satisfied with the present position. There is an urgent need for clarity which was emphasised by almost all those who gave us evidence. No way forward is entirely painless but at the very least the public deserve to know what is being planned. They need to be assured that every effort is being made to minimise their financial loss and that they will benefit from a better radio service. As taxpayers, they need to know how the costs of the programme will be apportioned. Our proposals are aimed at bringing greater clarity to the industry and reassurance for the public. If nothing is done then there is a danger of a major public reaction when the radio switchover policy is implemented.

7.  The membership of the Committee is set out in Appendix 1 and the Call for Evidence in Appendix 3. We received 163 written submissions, including 126 from members of the public, and took oral evidence from 22 witnesses, who are listed in Appendix 2. We should like to express our thanks to all who have assisted us in our work. We should also like to thank our Specialist Adviser for this inquiry, Professor Richard Collins, Professor of Media Studies at the Open University.

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