The Sky's the Limit

OK, I've been a digital TV subscriber for a little over a year, having been bullied off the analogue by the wonderful folk at Murdo-Vision. The reason? Well, they shut down all their services, delivering much bull about the benefits of a switch to digital services. So what do I think of it? Well, I'm not impressed at all.

How it all started...

You may or may not know the history of digital television in the UK, and it probably wouldn't matter if you did, but the important bit was when HMG decided to organise the wholesale shift to digital supply of all channels, using satellite, cable and terrestrial means. They gave a ten year deadline for the removal of the existing services and started handing out the contracts. For cash, of course. However Murdo-Vision decided to try to accelerate the process by bullying us off the analogue services, bribing us with tacky equipment for free and trying to convince us that we were getting a better deal. Now I realise that some folk reading this will probably disagree with what I'm about to say here, but it's my gripe!

The blurb, or Analogue vs. Digital

One of the biggest bits of blurb was the implication of a better quality service. Indeed, Murdo-Vision was totally correct when they stated that analogue video is subject to ghosting and co-channel interference, but what they made no mention of was the down side of digital reception. Digital TV includes error checking within its system, much as with most digital media, but this does not mean that Digital signals are bug free. This is because, in the case of the current Digital TV system, we have a little thing called compression. Consider firstly that by "Digital", they mean that an analogue signal is sampled at regular intervals, these intervals deciding on the base quality of the picture (note that it is impossible to create a genuine 100% digital copy of an analogue source, so it is necessary to try to get as close as possible, and the sample rate is the key to this). However, digital sources are still fairly chunky beasts, so to reduce the bandwidth required, the signal is then compressed.

Of course the problems of compression are all in addition to the problems inherent with broadcasting a digital stream. Back in the early days of satellite development, the IBA Engineering folk broadcast a demo of exactly what happens when you interfere with a signal. Basically, while error correction will stop things such as ghosting, and the amount of signal interference can certainly be more to cause problems, once you hit the limit it all shuts down. In other words, it is there or it isn't, and there is very little leeway. With satellite broadcasts in general, storms and such can really sod things up.

Consider, if you will, the JPEG still picture standard. What this does is compress a bit mapped picture by dispensing with repeated or intermediate levels. The higher the compression rate, the smaller the file gets, but the more is discarded from the picture itself, hence the reduction in quality. The trick used normally is to find a happy medium that reduces the file size but retains a quality that is acceptable to the eye. Now consider a moving picture version of the same thing, such as the MPEG. This is what Digital TV uses, and the trick is to present a video stream that is compressed enough to maximise the bandwidth available within the band allowed for it, but not so much as to make the picture look bad.

Here's an example. The pictures shown here are processed from a bit map I created from a drawfile (Acorn jargon; so sue me!)

Good compression example

This first is at optimum compression...

Not so good compression example

This second shot is at a higher compression...

Bad compression example

...and this one is at a very high compression.

Notice any difference? The higher the compression, the "boxier" it gets.

Now how does this affect Murdo-Vision? Simple. The amount of bandwidth is limited, so the compression ratio needs to be high enough to fit the required channels into it. Think of it as a cupboard which can only be filled with as many smaller boxes as possible. If you fill the cupboard with larger boxes, you can get more stuff in each of these boxes but you can't get that many boxes in the cupboard, but if you use smaller boxes, you can get less stuff in each box, even though you can get more of these smaller boxes into the cupboard.

Of course then you need to factor in the greed of the companies behind the boxes. Suppose you have a set fee for putting your box in the cupboard. This is a flat rate fee which is charged only for putting the box in there, the size of the box dictated by the cupboards' owner. It is in the interest of the owner to maximise his profit by keeping the boxes as small as possible while encouraging as many boxes as possible to be put in the cupboard.

Transferring this analogy to the real world, the cupboard becomes the satellite bandwidth, the boxes become channels and Murdo-Vision becomes unspeakably rich every time a new channel is set up. If you then consider open boxes (free to air), closed boxes (subscription channels) and locked boxes (pay per view), Murdo-Vision and the various companies running the channels stand to rake it all in. The trouble is that the quality goes down. Keep watching your digital transmissions and spot the "artifacts".

Pray per view

If the compression doesn't cause a problem, then consider the equipment. Since the age of the Pee Sea, it seems that the ordinary user has become accustomed and even ambivalent towards failure. With Pea Seas and Muckysoft Windross it is the Blue Screen of Death, the General Protection Error and the system hang, while the Digibucks suffers from a few quirks of its own.

The analogue system, even when you consider the satellite setup, is a fairly simple system. Not much can go wrong with a simple tuning system, especially as the technology is fairly well established. The digital system uses a similar setup at its base, but this is just so that the digital stream can be received. Effectively the signal sits on a band, the same way as an analogue signal does, but it then requires extra electronics to decode the signal so that you get the various channels. However it is this bit that is flaky.

Channel hopping is something that comes naturally to most folk when the stuff on TV is a bit naff. However when you find that the channels you are hopping to are not the ones you expect, or worse still your Digibucks suddenly "crashes" altogether, you soon realise that all is not well. Add to this digital dropouts on sound, frozen pictures, signal losses and what you have is something that our ancestors first taking TV on board would never stand for.

And the Greed goes on...

Of course we have yet to come to the best bit! Earlier in 2002, one of the major contributors to digital TV closed down in debt. Not because they had no users, oh no! The silly sods promised to pay the bearer on demand the sum of way too much money for a lot of football games (for you Merkans that might be reading this, everyone outside the Yooess of Ay refers to the thing you quaintly call "soccer" as football, a game played by moving the ball with your feet, and with a sight less padding! Even the Australian variant with the large oval field and lots of players is more football than the American version, but then that's a whole gripe on its own!)

You see, the source of much of the money that saved satellite broadcasting in the UK came on the back of deals made with football authorities. It has also historically been a real sink hole. Before satellite, the BBC and ITV companies shared the right to show highlights, and if you wanted to see whole games you bought a ticket and watched from the sidelines. Then satellite came along and the BBC, being supported by license money only, were forced to concede rights to a combination deal where ITV and BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) gave tons of money to the FA for rights. This caused a severe shortage of cash at BSB which was promptly swallowed up by Murdo-Vision (it's our own fault. We sent all those crooks to Australia, so it makes sense that they should send at least one back to defecate on us!) Result was that BSkyB (oh yeah, that is what they called it!) got all the resulting money from the football subscriptions and all the other money that it generated.

So it was somehow predictable that ITV Digital should, in their bid to dominate the digital television market, buy the FA with a deal that would have seen the FA rolling in dough, while ITV Digital would end up showing everything and, more importantly, nobody else would be able to show anything. At least not live, and even if they showed clips they would have those "Pictures courtesy of" adverts all over them. But of course it didn't work out that way, since they made one fatal mistake. They didn't do their sums right. But then this was inevitable considering that nobody could have known exactly how the digital take up would proceed.

On the face of it, it would seem that ITV Digital with the terrestrial digital system, making the whole thing more portable, also allowing the regional setup that ITV (and BBC for that matter) has always had, was the immediate favourite. The problem is that portability and regionality didn't even figure in most peoples' decision. This left a choice between a free box receiving terrestrial digital signals that was never actually yours (at least that was what they said at the time) and a free box receiving satellite digital signals that was yours as long as you agreed to certain terms and conditions. The Murdo-Vision takeup increased once they started bullying the analogue users over, which meant that the surface dwellers were suddenly outnumbered by the star men. The money coming in wasn't enough, so ITV Digital put off their debts more and more until the FA started making loud noises about it, and ITV Digital were squeezed into bankruptcy.

Who was at fault? It is this humble gripers' view that each had to bear some responsibility. ITV Digital took a gamble that didn't pay off, which proves (in my eyes) that sports are not the high point of any service output. Next time they cancel Star Trek on BBC 2 for snooker I can state this example! However the FA can also be held responsible to an extent. All those multi-million pound player transfer fees must have gone to their heads when they made that agreement - and make no mistake, this was an agreement. And at bottom, I have the following addition. Why make an agreement for one service to show everything, when there are hundreds of matches being played at every level around the country? I had a pop at the American "football" game earlier, but the NFL certainly has a better handle on selling games to TV, in that each channel has a chance of showing a game, and the major season end games are shared on a rotating basis so that each gets the benefit, and the NFL and the clubs clean up, and that's considering that they run far less games over a season than the FA does.


Finally, there is the whole point of companies making money from their product. Nothing wrong with that, you say, but in the UK we have a problem. To start with, let us consider the channel models.

  • Subscription channel
    A channel that is available only to people that subscribe to it. It gets money from subscription fees.
  • Pay-per-view channel
    A channel that is available only to people that pay for each programme.
  • Commercial channel
    A channel that gets its money from commercial advertisements shown at intervals throughout the transmission.

Now, consider that the majority of channels available in the digital system are commercial and subscription, and some also include pay-per-view elements, we see that we are paying well over the odds for our digital services. In fact, we pay a small fortune.


  • One time outlays
    • Digibucks installation
    • Digibucks purchase (if we are not buying the basic package)
  • Regular payments
    • TV License (this has to be paid, regardless of what we receive)
    • Subscriptions
    • Pay-per-view payments
  • Hidden payments
    • Commercials and sponsorships (you pay for these with your purchases)

When the terrestrial analogue system was set up, the television license funded the BBC services and ITV was left to fund itself by commercials. When satellite analogue services were set up, this continued for a while, but then Murdo-Vision got greedy and set nearly all of its services to subscription and commercial. There were initial noises made when pay-per-view was introduced after that, but it went in anyway. Digital TV just made this worse. Topping all this off, one of the terms and conditions is that you must subscribe to Murdo-Vision for a minimum of a year.

In other words, the British viewing public is being fleeced. And all for an unreliable service too.

Of course, there are exceptions. All BBC channels are free (as long as you have a free-to-air card for your box) and, weirdest of all, the Disney channels pretend to be commercial channels by sticking in commercial breaks everywhere which have no actual commercial ads in them. They only have ads for upcoming programmes!

One pointer about this was the analogue services provided from the Astra satellite that once served Sky. It shared its transponders with German services, most of which were commercial, very few of which were subscription. They seemed to survive just fine. Seems that the Germans have it better than us (so what else is new?)

How much is that doggie in the boob-tube?

A final word about the menace that is haunting all services; free, subscription and pay-per-view alike. Digital Overlay Graphics, or DOG's, are on the increase, despite a general dislike of the things by the viewing public. Um... well... actually, the BBC have a survey result that says that people prefer DOG's, but they don't say too much about the survey sample used, so more than one has disregarded this.

DOGs have been around since satellite broadcasting began. The excuse was that it gave people an idea about which channel they were on, though as a veteran from pre-satellite days, I can honestly say that I never had a problem before. In fact, they have less reason for this excuse now that digital TV gives you a TV guide at the push of a button.

The real reason for DOGs is far simpler. It's for the same reason that announcers talk over the closing credits or the company cuts the credits off altogether. They don't trust us. One of the biggest revolutions in television was not the satellite; it was the video recorder. It changed viewing habits, allowing television channels to go 24/7, and allowed the pirate to get an easy feed of new material, so they say.

It also obscures the picture for those that want to watch a programme rather than tons of artefacts jumping around the screen, and brands channels like cheap T-shirts. This includes "Coming up next" DOGs and special series DOGs and, on satellite, the abominable "Red button" (the on-screen prompt that tries to get you to press your red button for various reasons, few of them good).

You can see a little of what I am talking of by clicking here.

A pressure group has started to remove these nuisances from our screens, and all I can say is good luck. Since greed is at the bottom of everything within Digital TV, and greed is certainly at the bottom of this, chances of succeeding are slim, but I'll support it anyway. Perhaps the companies will finally take this chance to show that they actually do have a human side after all.

And all pigs are fuelled and ready to fly...

©2002/3 Chris Johnson

Please note that this document is my own view based on observation.
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