Incompatible digital broadcast systems and a welter of contradictory information have left viewers of RTE and other Irish TV channels in Northern Ireland in an invidious position after the digital switchover on 24 October: either make do with limited or no service or pay out for additional equipment. Greg McLaughlin counts the cost and considers the implications of this failure of policy vision.
In my previous post, My Digital Switchover Hell!, I vented my frustrations with the initial digital switchover on 12 October. The problem was the mismatch between the digital broadcast systems deployed by the UK and Ireland, which could leave viewers in Northern Ireland of RTE and other Irish TV channels with limited or no service after the final switchover on 24 October. As it happened, I was out of the country for that event and returned a week later in hope rather than expectation that things would have somehow resolved themselves. But no! My brand new, fully HD TV picked up the said channels ok but it was all sound and no picture with the error message: “Does not support video format”, i.e. the MPEG4 video compression system used in the Republic as opposed to the UK’s MPEG2 system.
Refusing to admit defeat, I called Jimmy at the local electrical store and told him the situation. “Ah”, he sighed like a weary helpline advisor, “you’ll need a box”. He was talking about a Saorview box, which is the Irish equivalent of a Freeview box, essentially a video decoder. “How much is that?” I asked fearfully. “For you my friend, only 60 quid!” So off I go to Jimmy’s shop only to find that he had just sold the last box and was waiting for a new delivery. When would that be? It might be come in later that day or the next morning. Failing that, sometime next week. But he took my phone number and promised to call me as soon as the next batch came in.
Now in my last post I referred to Mr Grumpy, the TV aerial man who told me I would probably need not only a box but, if worse came to worse, a new, more powerful aerial. And wouldn’t you know? There I was having my breakfast the other morning when he kicked down my front door and presented me with a box! I kid you not!! Cost of box and installation? Ninety quid! But at least I didn’t need a fancy new aerial or wait for a call from Jimmy that I knew would never come.
So I am on the pig’s back now and looking insufferably smug. I can receive all available Irish TV channels, one or two of them in glorious HD (though Mr Grumpy told me that my TV was crap. “How much did you pay for it?” he asked me. I think it was 250 quid. “Well that tells you something”, he said with a knowing wink.) I guess that makes me what they might call around the CMR, “a digitally empowered viewer” along with all those living in border counties like me ma who receive the channels as “spillover” on Freeview or those, like some of my colleagues, who get them via Rupert Murdoch’s satellite service. Some viewers in Belfast can receive a limited service via the Divis transmitter, i.e. RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 but in standard definition only. However, and I stand to be corrected here because the information I’m getting is very uncertain, anyone who receives Irish channels via Freeview or satellite will find that transmission of certain sports events will be blocked due to “rights issues”, e.g. live international football and Champions League. (Rupert Murdoch again!)
So far, so messy then. But whose fault is this? And what are the implications for the concept of “digital empowerment”?
Well, I’m not sure if we can talk in terms of “fault” as such. It seems that while most countries in the European Union have invested in the MPEG2 system with a view to roll out of MPEG4 at some unspecified point in the future, Ireland opted for the superior MPEG4 from the outset, which is fine for all license-paying viewers in the Republic but not so fine for viewers in Northern Ireland who in the analogue age were able to receive Irish channels as spill over, while thousands of viewers in the Republic of Ireland were able to receive UK channels via aerial or cable.
But if we can’t think of it as someone’s “fault”, we can think of it as a failure of policy vision because the problem should have been anticipated well in advance of the switchover. In 2008, RTE assured OfCom that it was working to ensure that its services would continue to be available to viewers in the North after the switchover in 2012. Two years later, in 2010, the British and Irish governments agreed a memorandum of understanding to this effect (McLaughlin, 2011; p.35). However, in each case, there seemed to be little or no consideration of what must have been the very evident incompatibility between the proposed digital broadcast systems. There was some hint in their respective public information campaigns that reception of Irish channels in Northern Ireland might be more complicated than first thought but this, again, was often vague, confusing or contradictory.
It took me months of frustration, exasperation and, ultimately, added expense, before coming to the point where I can now view all available Irish channels in digital. But at least I had access to the knowledge and resources required. There are other citizens out there who simply baffled and weary with it all and may well do without. Digital empowerment? I don’t think so.
PS: Have you seen Johnny Giles in HD yet? It’s like realising for the first time that your granddad wears make up. Frightening.
Greg McLaughlin (2011) ‘Those post-devolution, falling revenues blues: a political economy of Northern Ireland’s news media’, in David Hutchinson and Hugh O’Donnell (Eds.) Centres and Peripheries: Metropolitan and Non-Metropolitan Journalism in the 21st Century. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press; pp.27-41.