Raymond Snoddy on media: Digital UK faces an uphill struggle

What is the controller of BBC Two going to make of plans for it to be the first channel to have its analogue signal switched off as the UK moves toward wholly digital TV broadcasting in 2012?

It is far from clear whether the channel is being sacrificed as a make-weight, or mere tripwire, just to alert people that something of significance is about to happen to TV. Maybe BBC Two is seen as such a vital component of the broadcasting landscape that the public will be distraught at the sudden loss of Gardeners' World or Newsnight and rise up as one and head to the shops to buy digital converters. Perhaps turning off ITV's analogue signal first would have a more persuasive impact.

Marketers could be forgiven for failing to recognise that last week constituted a rather important staging post on the way to the UK achieving digital nirvana.

On a single day there came a series of significant contributions to a rather antique debate. Former Channel 5 chairman and long-time digital refusenik David Elstein argued that the analogue switch-off would be bigger than decimalisation and warned that the only sign of project management appeared to be the authorities telling people that their TV sets wouldn't work any more.

At the same time, independent consultant Chris Goodall told the Culture, Media and Sport select committee that compulsory switch-off would be 'traumatic' for a sizeable minority, who would gain no benefit from digital terrestrial TV whatsoever.

Communications regulator Ofcom used more measured language, but still warned that about 10% of the population would be reluctant to move to digital, or would find it difficult to do so. That could add up to at least 4m enraged voters.

Ofcom, which is very good at digging out numbers, added a few more to the bonfire: by 2008 the average cost of digital terrestrial set-top boxes will have fallen to £26, but an average household will have to spend about £132 to upgrade. Viewers in some areas will also need a new aerial, at a cost of £125.

It was at this point that Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital UK and the man responsible for persuading the UK to embrace digital, entered the fray. If he can achieve analogue switch-off without politically damaging chaos, he will deserve every marketing award going.

Not everyone has yet taken on board the fact that switch-off is one of the biggest marketing challenges of the decade. More than £200m is going to be spent on persuading people to fall in line with government policy.

Consumers will be encouraged to buy the necessary equipment, then, when everyone has fallen into line, the government will pocket the proceeds from auctioning off the released spectrum.

The first marketing initiatives of the seven-year campaign will be aimed at the people of the Borders region, who will lose analogue BBC Two, then their other terrestrial channels, in 2008. The process should end in 2012, with the Ulster, Tyne Tees, London and Meridian TV regions switching over in plenty of time for the summer Olympics.

Government policy is unequivocal on the issue and it is, after all, a manifesto commitment, as Ennals made unambiguously clear.

While those who needed help would receive it, if people 'chose knowingly not to receive TV, they would not receive TV', he warned. However unlikely this might seem, we must start planning business strategies on the basis that it might actually happen.

This is why the selling of analogue switch-off had better be one of the smartest communications campaigns of the decade. Perhaps a little smarter than threatening viewers with the disappearance of BBC Two.

30 SECONDS ON ... FORD ENNALS

- Ennals joined the non-profit, industry-funded digital switch-over authority Digital UK (then called SwitchCo) as chief executive on 23 May. He works with chairman Barry Cox.

- His job got off to a shaky start as the body appointed Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to handle its ad account, only to cancel the contract two months later. It was forced to hold the pitch again after it emerged the correct procedures for public tenders had not been followed. Digital UK is currently looking for ad, media and direct agencies.

- Ennals was previously chief marketing officer of Universal Group Direct, and before that group marketing director at Lloyds TSB. When Lloyds merged with TSB, he oversaw the integration of 17m customers and 4500 branches.

- Ennals subscribes to Sky Digital, which he describes as 'great value', and is in training for the New York marathon.

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