Tip Top 

2 May 2004 tbs.pm/1964

The world can change a lot in four years. In spring 2000 I lived in a grotty studio flat in West London with a massive overdraft, a battered 14-inch TV set, an OnDigital box and ants climbing out of the plughole.

Four years on, the old TV is sat on top of a wardrobe, replaced by a gleaming widescreen model. The VCR went kaput and was replaced, and a DVD player arrived.

The OnDigital box is still in service, but it’s there as a backup – used only when my newer, faster, smaller box is busy recording something. Oh and the ants are long dead after being killed by a wonderful spray thing.

The box still has the OnDigital smart card optimistically sticking in its card slot. I never bothered removing it. Don’t know why. Memories of past TV channels or something. Times of Sky One.

Of E4 and UK Gold and more. Times long gone. It’s all free to air now. High quality television like FTN and Sky Travel… Oh and ITV2.

It’s enough to make you rush for the off-switch. And indeed I have. Back in the days of OnDigital, I watched a diet of ‘Simpsons’, ‘Banzai’ and ‘Dinnerladies’. ‘Liquid News’ was on every night with much-missed Christopher Price.

Nowadays I watch a lot less. The only digital channels I regularly watch are from the BBC, and that’s when I’m actually watching a TV channel – most of the time the box is pumping out a radio station instead.

So Hark! What’s that I hear? Now I can get even more choice with Top Up TV? For just £7.99 a month, I could get UK Gold, E4, Cartoon Network and Discovery again? And Turner Classic Movies? And I can even use my old OnDigital box? Well, if you put it like that…

Yes: if you put it like that… I’ll just stick with what I’ve got, thanks.

As ITV Digital (as OnDigital was renamed) was collapsing in 2002, I took a look at what I was getting out of my subscription. And I sighed and decided that there wasn’t much point in signing up with any other pay-TV provider.

By the end of my time with ITV Digital I was regularly watching just one channel and that was only because it fed me an endless diet of The Simpsons, as well as keeping me up to date with the latest Star Trek and Futurama.

The rest of the available channels were just an occasional watch – the odd programme every now and then. Some I hardly ever went near.

I wasn’t a sport fan, so that ruled out Sky Sports and Eurosport, and in the entire time I had Discovery I watched just one programme. It was about rollercoasters. It was quite good.

Good enough to spend my money on? A year’s subscription for one programme?

So when ITV Digital went under, I didn’t bother phoning up Sky or NTL to get back what I’d lost. I just stuck with the small number of free-to-air channels, and that was that.

But that was then, and this is now, and for the first time in two years I have the option of pay-TV again. No need for NTL to come round to dig up the drive.

No need for Sky to put up one of their dishes. I have all the equipment in my house, ready and waiting. I just have to pay the money, get the smart card and put it into my old OnDigital box.

And you know what? I don’t think I’ll bother.

OK, the price is good. £7.99 a month for some of the top TV channels? Well that’s not bad. To get the same channels on Sky, you’d be paying £19.50 a month, or £18.50 on cable. Okay, you get other channels as well – but if you don’t want them, why pay for them?

Well… except that you don’t get all 10 Top Up TV channels at the same time. You get five in the evening, four in the daytime.

And what is that choice? During the evening I’d have UKTV Style, E4, Discovery (a station which I only ever watched once), UKTV Gold and TCM.

If the E4 we have now was like the E4 when it launched, well that would be tempting. A bold, innovating channel with some fantastic new comedy ideas like ‘Banzai’.

But now it seems to be little more than endless reality TV programmes, repeats of ‘Smack the Pony’, ‘Father Ted’ and of course, over 20 episodes of ‘Friends’ a week.

I was never a big watcher of UK Gold (bored, wet weekend afternoons mainly – a time it won’t even be available on Top Up TV) and as for TCM, well they have some good films, but so did Carlton Cinema and I hardly ever watched that.

And what about during the day? Boomerang’s a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t pay so that I can watch ‘Tom and Jerry’, and ‘The Flintstones’.

Business news with Bloomberg at breakfast? Nah. Cartoon Network? Sorry, their best stuff was always on in the evening (ah, ‘Home Movies’ and ‘Sheep In the Big City’!). UK Food and Discovery Home and Leisure? Hmm.

By all accounts (backed up by some back-of-the-envelope calculations), Top Up TV will only need 300,000 subscribers to make its venture pay, and let’s face it, that’s not impossible at all.

Their ambitions aren’t high – they’re not trying to take on Sky at their own game like ITV Digital did, and they’ll probably get those subscribers reasonably easily. There are around 800,000 old ITV Digital set top boxes out there for starters.

But I won’t be one of those people. There’s nothing to tempt me back to pay-TV yet. A little bit of money for a lot more repeats and low quality imports? I don’t think so.

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