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Digital TV is on its way to a screen near you very soon, yet few people know what it is. Andrew Mylius explains what it means and how it will affect viewing

Digital broadcasting is sending out a murky picture. The future of television is almost here: the BBC, BSkyB and British Digital Broadcasting are due to begin digital transmission within six months and British Interactive Broadcasting is waiting for the EU to grant it a licence. Eventually, time unspecified, the Government will “switch off” analogue. Yet David Robinson, director of marketing and strategy at Lambie-Nairn @ The Brand Union, says “the whole world is coming at this out of the dark”.

According to Media Guardian editor John Mulholland, a recent survey showed two thirds of people in the UK don’t know what digital TV is. While most people will never need to know how it actually works, the potential changes in the way we watch TV will inescapably be there in everyone’s front room.

Chris Horrie, director of journalism studies at the London College of Printing and currently writing a book on digital broadcasting, says cable companies have invested 10 billion wiring up the UK and 80 per cent of households could connect to cable tomorrow. There will also be digital satellite and digital terrestrial platforms – the modes of delivery. In 12 months’ time there will be 500 channels.

Across Europe (France and Spain are already served, and the rest of Europe will come on line at the same time as the UK) digitalisation could create 800 000 new jobs, says a European Commission green paper. Some of those will be in design. And this is where things do get complex.

More choice for the consumer means more competition in the marketplace. The BBC, for example, will continue to produce its current programming but, where it now competes with only four other channels, it will in future need to hold its own in a sea of possibilities. Lambie-Nairn believes consistency in the way channels are branded will be more important than ever. There needs to be strong correlation between the identity of a channel and its content. As with shoppers in a supermarket, broadcasters want to win brand loyalty. If a customer is bored, or if there’s a better offer on the next shelf, or if the product fails them, they’ll drop you. It is hard to win them back.

Currently, design and production are relatively cheap set against the costs of buying time on an analogue channel. But the cost of broadcasting itself will fall with the use of digital systems. Following a cost-effective formula, BSkyB and BDB will initially show sport and Hollywood hits – the drivers underpinning the success of cable in the US. However, the dedication of channels paves the way for niche television.

The introduction of subscriber viewing or pay-per-view combines access to a channel or even particular programmes with the ultimate form of selection: purchase. Television could mimic the fragmentation and diversification seen in the Eighties magazine market. If this is the case, branding may be released from the constraint of reaching most of the people most of the time. The success of fmcg programmes helped shape Channel 5; analogue satellite already relays sport, rolling 24-hour news channels and MTV to dish owners everywhere, and US television is synonymous with game- and talk-show genres. There is plenty of evidence to suggest niche TV will happen.

However, given that digital television works on roughly the same principles as the Internet, the future of television might be “Me TV”. Television as you want it when you want it. In order to navigate through the vast array of channels and programmes on offer, digital TV will be introducing a new gadget, the electronic programme guide. Memory in the EPG or using it to programme the television will technically make it possible to assemble a TV feast that precisely satisfies the viewer’s appetite.

Total viewer control doesn’t sound good for design: pure content and the exclusion of ads and identities. However, it seems likely there will be a different EPG system for each of the three platforms – cable, satellite and terrestrial. It is fair to assume that each will tackle the challenge of TV interactivity in a different way. And if, as the BBC and BIB believe, remote-controlled interactive television is only a short way off, each programme has the potential to work like a time-based website.

Heard of docudrama and infotainment? Microsoft’s Web TV, currently up and running on the Internet, delivers TV programmes that are, at the same time, ads. If, as you sit watching a Jane Austen drama, you like the look of Bath, click an on-screen icon and find out more. The Attik London managing director Tim

Watson says: “TV will stop being something submissive in the corner. It will be like people discovering a way to make cars fly.” In terms of interface, TV interactivity will be different from the Net. Instead of using a keyboard and mouse, most viewers will have a hand-held blipper. Watson is looking at the relationship between what viewers see and the way they engage. “There are no precedents for interactive TV,” he says.

Television has become a familiar part of the domestic landscape and it is a technology that nobody is scared of. As interface design evolves, access to Internet-like navigability will become increasingly normal. John Browning, editor of Wired magazine, predicts that, with the exception of drug deals, every business transaction in the world will be conducted on the net by 2005. Taken into the home, this is teleshopping © with a vengeance – the combination of niching and interaction. Multimedia design team Deep End’s Gary Lockton says, “the familiarity of TV means digital TV will be the Web, CD-ROM and television. It will be a cocktail of media with a bigger audience than any one of those has now.”

As the vehicle for new subjects, seen in different ways by lots of people, then, digital television will be calling for multimedia and website design skills with a new slant. However, Dave Rowsell, head of interaction design at Ravensbourne College, thinks technology is becoming so cheap and sophisticated that the idea of a television programme per se is obsolete. “You are designing an interactive experience that is interesting, has emotional value, is legible, communicates and works technologically. With new technology comes a medium that allows something old media didn’t: it breaks away from linearity.” Once this happens, “you are giving up authorship – allowing the viewer to be creative. In the best case, they can assume the role of director,” he says.

Rowsell’s view of director- and editor-less television works on the principle tested in 1996 by Mindshare Digital, Videotron and Kellogg’s. By bundling together four channels, each carrying a different but interlinked storyline, viewers were able to take Tony the Tiger on an adventure of their own making. The enormous popularity of the exercise resoundingly endorsed the idea of DIY directing. It was carefully designed and the choices pre-orchestrated, but with sufficient cameras, a football match could be made entirely design- and production-free. Using a Nintendo-like control the viewer selects the action they want to watch.

Interactive Tony was, of course, about more than just giving the viewer some fun: the tiger became more appealing, and his Frosties did too. Interaction may, possibly, deliver a marketing tool that starts to bridge the gap between the representation of a product and the product itself; the next level of hyper-reality. And what goes for products advertised on TV goes for TV itself. BBC1’s success may in future be critiqued in the same way as dungeon games. For some, though, reality is irreplaceable: “Personally, I can’t imagine buying things off the TV when I can go down the high street,” says Watson.

Lockton is optimistic about the design industry’s ability to respond to the digital phenomenon fast and creatively. It will be a particularly exciting time for young companies that have cut their teeth on electronic culture, he thinks. Like everyone else watching the next TV generation being sent into orbit, and burrowed beneath the streets, he is not sure how it will look. But he is certain its effect will be “like a fresh pair of glasses”. Hopefully with night vision.

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