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The Digital Counter-Revolution

Digitization, hyped as the savior of Eastern European TV, instead is bringing us more of the same old thing.

by Marius Dragomir 16 January 2012

As I drove from Bucharest to my hometown on the Black Sea coast, Constanta, last month, I was surprised by how many Bulgarian radio stations stubbornly elbowed their way in among the Romanian stations on the car’s radio.

 

That would have been unthinkable in the analog world of the past. Back when television in communist Romania showed hardly any sports, I remember how people in southern Romania, like my parents, used to jury-rig homemade antennas to catch Bulgarian broadcasts of World Cup matches and other sports events. And what a challenge it was.

 

I have nothing against Bulgarian radio. In fact, during my trip, I listened to more of it than the local stations because they played better music. But it brought home the consequences of the switch from analog to digital broadcasting, on the media outlets and on us consumers of media, if the process is carried out in the chaotic way many countries in the region are doing it. Without clear rules about licensing and the allocation of frequencies, deliberate or inadvertent jamming and interference can easily occur, making life hard for the weaker stations and angering many listeners.

 

Complaints about interference on the radio and TV spectra clog Romanian broadcast regulators’ forum.

 

For years the press, techies, regulators, advertisers, and even some politicians have trumpeted the benefits that digital broadcasting was supposed to bring: better image and sound, amazing interactivity, and the capacity to squeeze many more channels into the same frequency spectrum. A world of beautiful, diverse, and smart TV was about to dawn.

 

Well, here we are in 2012, the year when all EU countries were slated to turn off the analog TV signals, and not much of this is happening in Eastern Europe. The reasons are political, legal, and economic.

 

I FOUGHT THE LAW AND THE LAW LOST

 

The EU can set deadlines for the digital switchover, and interstate agreements on the use of frequencies are managed by a UN agency, the International Telecommunication Union. But then national politicians and bureaucrats have to come home and translate it all into policy and practice.

 

In Western Europe, the digital transition is mostly complete. There were some hiccups along the way: in Britain, pioneering digital outlets saw a wave of failures and bankruptcies more than a decade ago, while in some heavily cabled countries such as the Netherlands, most people hardly noticed the change.

 

Digitization is a bigger concern in countries where users are more dependent on terrestrial, free-to-air broadcasting, which until recently included most of Central and Eastern Europe.

 

Digitizing Eastern Europe’s terrestrial broadcasters has been a haphazard process, mostly because of delays in adopting the necessary legislation and the lack of popular information campaigns.

 

In 2009, Romania set January 2012 as the target date to complete the transition to digital. When nothing happened after a year, the government moved the deadline back to 2014, saying it didn’t want to force Romanian households to buy new equipment during an economic downturn.

 

To capture digital signals, users need to buy either a digitally equipped TV or a set-top converter box.

 

Similar delays occurred across the region. In Bulgaria, the government dawdled over adopting the necessary legislation in the 2000s and ended up delaying the end of analog broadcasts for a year, until 2013, a target many experts think is still unrealistic.

 

An oddity in the region is Albania, where the Digitalb company began broadcasting in digital in 2004 despite no legal framework being in place. A second digital operator, Tring, went on the air in 2008. Now the country’s lawmakers have to figure out how to legalize these initiatives. Otherwise, some half a million subscribers to the two operators would be left without their programs.

 

To add to the public’s confusion, official consultation and information campaigns were rare across the region, which further compromised the switch to digital TV. In almost all countries what debate occurred was limited to media insiders.

 

TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY?

 

Another reason for the lack of interest in digital free-to-air TV is the unabated growth of pay platforms like cable and satellite.

 

In Hungary, almost 50 percent of households were able to receive digital TV in 2011, and 95 percent of them subscribed to cable or satellite services.

 

In Macedonia, another country where the government took little action in adopting policy for digital broadcasting, about 65 percent of households received TV via cable or satellite last year. Only 5 percent of all terrestrial households in 2011 were digital.

 

Free-to-air channels have been losing viewers to pay platforms across most of Eastern Europe for several years, the result both of effective marketing by cable and satellite operators and of botched plans to convert terrestrial channels to digital.

 

Terrestrial platforms were naturally the best-positioned to remain popular in a region that was used for decades to consume television free of charge. Another reason many households rely on terrestrial TV is because they can’t afford or don’t want to pay for TV. What these countries needed were robust strategies that would have encouraged solid, ad-funded multichannel terrestrial packages. Such offers would surely have posed major competition to pay platforms.

 

TV IN A TIME OF CRISIS

 

The great thing about digital was the low entry cost for startups, broadcast professionals have been exulting for years. Finally, they said, television would no longer be the playground of a few rich conglomerates. But experience has shown that digital TV is not such an inexpensive venture. It is hard to compare the costs of analog and digital broadcast operations because the needs are, in part, different. But in general, you still need expensive cameras, editing machines, and other equipment, not to mention staff who know how to run it all. Transmission costs are approximately 30 percent lower for digital operations, it’s true. But overall, it is still a business for multimillionaire investors.

 

On top of this miscalculation, Eastern Europe also tried to go digital at the worst possible time – during the economic disaster that hit every country in the region beginning in 2009. The result was a flood of bankruptcies. Some of the new entrants collapsed even before starting to air.

 

There are some new competitors on these markets, but the incumbents have defended their positions, and the broadcast media are still concentrated in a few hands. A major opportunity to rejuvenate television has been lost.

Marius Dragomir is a media analyst in London.

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