Tomorrow sees the first region in Australia, Mildura/Sunraysia, switch off its analogue TV signal and move to a totally digital regime. While it's a historic moment, it doesn't take John Logie Baird to work out what it actually means: not all that much.
Picture by maximejoris
The initial reaction is going to be tediously predictable. A newspaper will locate a pensioner who wasn't aware of the switchover, and who now finds themselves facing the prospect of not being able to watch news bulletins at 4:30pm, 5:00pm, 6:00pm, 7:00pm and 7:30pm unless they buy some new equipment. The TV industry will point out that when the figures were last measured in April, more than 87% of people in the area and 68% of Australians overall knew they needed new equipment for digital TV and that some of them even got scammed in the process. There'll be a momentary kerfuffle, a few insulting comments about dentures, and then the attention of news journos will be distracted by something stupid happening on Masterchef or Julia Gillard's hair colour and life will largely go on as usual.
Does that mean the switchover from analogue to digital doesn't matter? Not at all. One of the mistakes that's endlessly repeated in the technology space is assuming that because a new technology is available, everything that's gone before is suddenly irrelevant.
In reality, older techs often survive, albeit in changing quantities. We've reached the point where people have started pronouncing the death of the CD, but it's still not that difficult to buy a vinyl record, which CDs themselves were meant to kill. In fact, it's about as easy to buy a vinyl record as a CD, given how many shops don't stock either. Thank goodness for that Internet thing.
In the world of entertainment tech, choices multiply more often than they evaporate, but their relative availability shifts at the same time. To quote from the set theory I haven't thought about much since I was a teenager, the Venn diagrams will overlap quite considerably.
The switch to digital TV marks one of the rare occasions where an option really will disappear: anyone who hasn't bought a new TV or a set-top box will indeed have a black screen. But that will still be a tiny percentage of people, some of whom will probably be quite happy never to see Daryl Somers again. The radio and the DVD player and the cinema down the road and the ageing VHS deck and the old 45 turntable in the attic will still keep going — and that's before anyone switches on their dilapidated 486.
The reality is that even though digital television brings a number of benefits — better signal and a choice of more channels — the people who care about that will largely have made the switch by now. If you've resisted the blanket advertising and the pensioner subsidies and the hidden attractions of GO!, you're probably not going to be persuaded now, especially when you learn about digital TV's built-in annoyances and get confused by a few more Freeview commercials.
It's also worth remembering that those benefits already aren't evenly distributed. Regional viewers have had a slower path to multiple digital channels. By the time some of them get it, Channel BT — a model lots of Australians like even if there's still no clear business model. And future distribution models like Google TV will intersect with existing options like iView to make the picture even more confusing.
The key word there is confusing, not blurred. The options will continue to multiply. You might spend part of this week explaining to your elderly Mildura relatives why they need a bit of new equipment; you might even have to drive over and set it up for them. But that doesn't mean there won't be many more similar conversations to be had in the future. That's what an ageing population means.
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