Let the market decide the digital switchover question
Posted on Thursday, July 8th, 2010 at 2:32 pm. #
The announcement from Ed Vaizey today said nothing that we didn’t already know.
Total listening to radio via all digital radio platforms (DAB, internet, DTV) needs to reach 50%. Once this threshold is reached then the government will decide whether it wants to instruct the major players in the broadcasting industry to come off analogue (FM and AM); and if it does decide to do that, those analogue frequencies will be vacated after two years. The analogue spectrum will still be used by smaller local radio stations.
2013 has been put about by the industry as a target date for 50% of all radio to be listened-to digitally. We’re not even halfway there yet (RAJAR shows 24%), and a 2013 date would mean analogue switchoff would occur in 2015. Given that the next General Election has already been set as 7 May 2015, it would be a brave government indeed who’d be seeking re-election on a “we’ll switch off your favourite radio stations” ticket.
Let’s assume that the threshold is reached, whenever that is (and it’s inevitable, since the figure includes internet radio). This will mean that 50% of all radio listening is done on a digital platform, but 50% of all radio listening will still be done on analogue. If the government forces commercial radio stations to relinquish their analogue frequencies and lose up to 50% of their total hours, you would be commiting mass-murder on an already commercially-ailing industry. (Radio listening is in rude health; but even that would suffer).
DAB’s multiplex model can’t properly deal with all the radio stations on the UK dial, particularly small community stations: they’ll be left enjoying a ghetto-like FM dial along with pirate radio, who’d presumably be delighted at all the extra frequencies seemingly available to them. With a huge install-base of FM radios still in the market, why would commercial radio be happy to give the majority of their FM audience to community radio – or, worse, pirate radio?
The industry’s oft-repeated mantra is “we need to go digital because every other media is”. But replacing a speaker in a box with a different speaker in a box is a pointless exercise. Yes, FM frequency allocation is heavily weighted towards the BBC; and yes, increasingly, audiences expect more choice of listening from the brands they know – but neither of those two statements requires FM to be downgraded to a poor-man’s medium. There’s little wrong with FM. With hybrid radio technologies marrying broadcast and IP, it can be as feature-rich as any other platform.
The future of radio is a multi-platform future. So, the radio industry should be the only people choosing what radio platforms they wish to use in the future. There are at least two large stations, Gold and Absolute Radio‘s national service, who have hit the 50% threshold already. You could argue these companies should be free to switch off their AM transmitters at any point – in phases if required – without regulatory penalty.
Many groups are showing that the additional choice that digital affords is commercially valuable to them. The Absolute Radio network of stations, or the BBC’s “Xtra” range of services, show that additional choice from a known brand is welcomed by listeners. FM can’t deliver this additional choice; digital delivers.
But if a station believes that they should be on fewer platforms, they should be able to cease broadcasting on FM – or on DAB – without regulatory penalty as well: or, throw an entirely new service onto DAB, rather than a simulcast that offers the listener little extra. The future of radio is a multi-platform future, based on brands not individual stations; but if radio stations choose not to be part of that future – and can cope with the inevitable fall of listeners by pulling off a platform – then they should be free to run their business as they wish. Radio as a medium is strong enough to cope with the demise of stations that don’t understand the multi-platform future.
However you cut it, it seems to me that a government-mandated digital switchover is the wrong thing for the industry.
And I bet you didn’t think I’d say that.
(What do you think? It’d be interesting to hear in the comments here whether I’m way off beam.)