Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Someone still loves you, DAB

It's hard to find someone with a kind word to say about DAB these days. And even if you do find a kind word, it will be of the "it was a great idea but one whose time has come and gone".

But not Tony Moretta. Oh, no: He takes to the Guardian blogs to argue that DAB has a future. That it is the future.

Of course, his fervent belief in the format is most easily explained by the final line of his piece:

Tony Moretta is chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau

His argument is achingly familiar, pointing out that there are DAB radios in one in three households in the country, while not mentioning the fact that most - probably at least one in ten - radios in the UK aren't.

Moretta points to the success of digital TV as a sign of hope:
And finally, as food for thought, it is six years until the end of 2015 – almost the same as since the launch of Freeview, when there were only about 600,000 households with digital terrestrial television. Now there are almost 18m. A powerful example of what a broadcast industry can achieve through co-operation, innovation and hard work.

But it isn't the same thing, is it, Tony? Digital TV offered a range of extra services; currently, DAB extends your choice very, very narrowly. Old TV sets can be adapted to take a digital signal; most radio sets can't. Households may have two or three TV sets; some households could have more than half a dozen radios.

And that spread of Freeview boxes? Don't forget that those aren't just an example of what the broadcasting industry can do; it was also a way of distributing an alternative method of broadcasting digital radio programmes. By your own figures, there are just nine million DAB sets in the UK; dwarfed by the number of people who can get the same stations on just one of the digital TV formats.

So why is Tony so chipper? He points to the plans:
1. Improved coverage and reception: We will roll out DAB coverage to match FM, through new transmitters and signal strength increases.

You haven't even finished building the initial network yet. We're still waiting for the regional multiplex in Beds, Herts & Bucks to appear; the licence to build it was awarded two years ago. I say "waiting", but there's no baiting of breath on it.
2. Improved, co-ordinated marketing: Last Christmas saw the first joint campaign across the BBC and commercial radio. We are developing this approach still further with the manufacturers and retailers, to more clearly brand digital radios and sell the benefits to consumers.

DAB radios have been on sale in the UK for a decade. If people aren't buying them, it may very well not be an "education" problem.
3. New and improved content: DAB already offers much more choice than analogue, with strong services from the BBC and commercial radio, and this will only increase as the economy improves and the increased take-up of digital improves the business case for digital-only stations.

Although it offers less choice, much less choice, than signals broadcast alongside TV, and a world less than IP radio. So if you're going to go to the trouble and expense of upgrading, what would you go with?
4. Cheaper DAB radios: Already under £30, within 12 to 18 months they will be £20 or even £15. At that price the benefits of DAB will appeal to millions more consumers.

That's the way to drive take-up - "don't buy a set yet, as in 18 months you'll be able to get one for half the price..."
5. Cars: Ford and Vauxhall, the manufacturers of six of the 10 most popular cars in the UK, have announced their support for the Digital Britain proposals. Manufacturers are increasingly fitting DAB as standard or as a low cost option, and this will increase quickly now with a common technical standard across Europe. Low cost, easy-to-use adapters are already available and will only improve.

Wow. Half the seventeen or eighteen new cars they're expecting to sell this year will come from a manufacturer that "supports" DAB. Come on, Tony: even the motor industry doesn't really think new car sales will help the motor industry at the moment, much less a radio format.

And you know what else you can get low cost, easy-to-use adapter for? iPods and iPhones. One will let you have your own music in the car; the other will give you access to an increasing number of broadcast and web-only radio stations on an unlimited data package.

Again, what would you choose?

The cruelest irony is that what might have once been the great hope for DAB - an analogue switch-off - is actually going to be the final kicking. The old AM and FM radio frequencies will wind up delivering wireless internet, making web-radio even more accessible.

What's fascinating is that Moretta's whole argument sees DAB as being in competition solely with FM and AM radios. It's as if Britain had shaped its entire 20th century foreign policy to avoid an invasion from Napoleon.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just wonder whether anyone of importance in matters of broadcasting regulation is being properly informed of other options or just jumping to the "well if that's what we're doing with TV, then that's what we'll do with radio" conclusion. There really isn't any similarity. The two are used in completely different ways and have evolved in completely different ways. Last week's Digital "look at us we just said 'digi-tal'" Britain report was worryingly out of touch on these simple things. There really isn't much of a defence at all on the issue of DAB and one has to wonder if their only sources of information were the manufacturers and retailers of these products.

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