Analogue age set to expire amid economic gloom
Ireland’s urban-rural screen divide has been neatly highlighted in a report by Behaviour & Attitudes on TV viewing methods in Ireland - my own preferred method being the time-honoured 4-3-3 of three cushions, three remotes and four minutes for the DVD player to reach its main menu.
Living in set-top box land, it’s been easy to dismiss the import of Ireland’s belated switchover to digital terrestrial television (DTT) and just assume everyone in Ireland is by now familiar with such eclectic digital delights as, say, BBC Four quiz Only Connect, on which contestants regularly announce “we’ll have the Twisted Flax” in reference to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex, where if a twisted flax ever did come up, it would probably mean something else entirely.
However, the survey of 1,100 households, commissioned by the Department of Communications, extrapolates that a significant 16 per cent of “TV homes” – an estimated 254,000 households – rely solely on terrestrial television, while some 10 per cent have access to Irish terrestrial channels only. Two thirds of terrestrial TV homes are located in rural areas, with just 1 per cent of Dublin homes having access only to Irish terrestrial channels, compared to 28 per cent of “Munster Rural” homes.
Behaviour & Attitudes also finds that heads of households relying on Irish terrestrial services are more likely than average to be in receipt of the Household Benefit Payment Scheme (which includes a free TV licence), are more likely to be working in manual occupations and are more likely to be retired.
Given the high numbers of households involved, it’s clear that the Department and its Minister, Pat Rabbitte, still have a lot of work to do on the information side of DTT’s troubled advent. Presumably the survey result that only a third of Irish terrestrial TV homes were aware of the pending analogue switch-off is already a little out of date – it was conducted last November, while the marketing campaign for Saorview, RTÉ’s free-to-air DTT service, only began in March.
However, the socio-economics of Ireland’s analogue demographic will be potentially costly for the Department to negotiate. Analogue-dependent viewers upgrading to Saorview will need to purchase a Saorview-compatible television or a set-top box. The latter are currently available for a not-so-free €100, according to the Department, though prices are predicted to fall by the analogue switch-off date at the end of 2012.
One Behaviour & Attitudes survey finding that didn’t make the Department’s press release is that 77 per cent of TV homes said they would “definitely not” be buying a new television set within the next six months. “All in all, it seems likely that between no more than 3 and 5 per cent of all Irish TV households will invest in a new TV set over the next six months or so, regardless of reception type,” the research firm concludes.
“With roughly a third of all TV householders (regardless of reception type) admitting that they are struggling from a financial perspective, it is clear from all of the survey data that many TV homes would find it difficult to invest any significant amount of money in new TV equipment as part of the analogue switch-off process,” it warns. Well, that’s the economy for you.
The researchers go on to stress: “It is important to note that very low numbers of TV households (including analogue households) are planning to purchase a new TV set in the immediate future, suggesting that the adoption of new technology alone cannot be relied upon as a means of empowering households with new TV reception systems.” Ouch.
Rabbitte has indicated that “practical measures to assist in the switchover” are imminent. Leaflet drops will not, by themselves, be enough. A subvention scheme for analogue households will have to be implemented in the next 19 months – otherwise the screens of thousands of older people living in sparsely populated areas will simply fade to black, while ratings for the 2013 Rose of Tralee contest and a raft of other RTÉ jewels will plunge.