Raymond Snoddy on media: Can Freeview keep UK switched on?

The TV ad for Freeview, depicting a big red sofa on the side of a hill, is unlikely to feature in next year's advertising effectiveness awards, but it is remarkable nonetheless.

Viewers are drawn in their thousands, by the prospect of multi-channel TV without a subscription.

Finally, Freeview has discovered the power of paid-for TV ads, which form part of a Christmas campaign that will include outdoor, online and retail initiatives.

Those viewers who will receive the TV ad live in the Border, Central and Granada areas - good folks who will soon be losing their analogue channels by government dictum.

The ads explain how channels such as UKTV History, ITV2 and CBeebies are all available through a £30 box and absolutely no contract or subscription. So far, so good. There may be just a tiny hint of over-claiming, but you know what advertising is like.

Everyone is invited to watch 40 free digital channels plus listen to 20 digital radio channels. Can everybody really get 40 free TV channels from Freeview, wherever they live, and pay top-up for more channel options? Maybe it really is time to invest £30.

The claimed 14m Freeview homes also sounds a tad optimistic unless you include Freeview boxes for second sets in Sky homes. But all this is detail. The really interesting thing is why Freeview is starting to advertise now, when, according to the company, it is in 14m UK homes already.

Never mind years of endless free BBC advertising, surely the terrestrial broadcasters could have squeezed even more value out of Freeview in the battle against Sky if they had moved a little more quickly?

Coming so soon after the analogue switch-off in Whitehaven, there is the slight feeling that someone is being leaned on. The Whitehaven job is done and dusted and progressed more smoothly than most people could have imagined, at least in engineering terms. But there is still an estimated 2% of the local population of about 25,000, or 500 people, with no TV service, never mind 40 free TV channels.

Digital UK will no doubt get better at its task, but scale up the current Whitehaven situation and the result is about 1.2m UK citizens left without their tellies for at least a short period. And that is before you take all those second and third sets into account. That could cause a lot of aggravation in marginal constituencies if there were an election.

Maybe that's why Freeview is advertising - before the 500 telly-less people in Whitehaven turns into hundreds of thousands in Manchester or Birmingham.

In another remarkable coincidence, the Whitehaven switch-off and the first Freeview ads come as Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital UK decides to become a footwear and leather executive for Nike in the US.

At the very least, his career move will make him a prime candidate for this year's Michael Grade 'Inappropriate Departure of the Year' award.

In the immortal words always uttered with great piety on such occasions, Ennals said: 'There is never a good occasion to leave a business you love.' Absolutely, but there is a worst possible moment to leave a beloved business, as Grade, the former chairman of the BBC, can testify.

In digital switchover terms it has been an exciting week and Freeview and Digital UK have risen to the challenge. But there are still unresolved issues aside from making sure that the entire 60m population of the UK has digital TV.

It is time Ofcom took its turn. All it has to do is reject BSkyB plans to create pay packages for digital terrestrial TV, a concept that would undermine the predominantly 'free' nature of Freeview.

The communication regulator should also do everything it can to create the capacity for a free-to-air high-definition service rather than rushing to flog off the spectrum liberated by Ennals and chums to the highest bidder.

30 SECONDS ON ... MARGINAL CONSTITUENCIES

- The Labour Party leads the Liberal Democrats in the Greater Manchester constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth, by 3590 (8.3%).

- Also in Manchester, Labour leads the Tories by 2064 (5.1%) in Bolton West, secretary of state for transport Ruth Kelly's constituency, and in Bury North by 2926 (6.6%).

- In Birmingham Edgbaston, a seat once held by former Conservative prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Labour has a marginal lead of 2349 votes (6.2%) over the Tories.

- The Labour Party also marginally leads the Tories at Birmingham Hall Green, the constituency in which JRR Tolkien grew up. It leads by 5714 votes (16.5%).

- Alongside Birmingham Edgbaston, Birmingham Hall Green was the last of the Conservatives' seats in the city to be lost to Labour in the 1997 general election.

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