BBC Digital – April 1999 

15 June 2014 tbs.pm/3663

BBC Digital services, April 1999

BBC Digital services, April 1999

In 1964, the BBC was faced with attempting to persuade viewers to buy a new television set and a new aerial in order to receive four hours a night of the new, highbrow BBC-2. The viewers were reluctant and moved over only some time after colour was introduced on the new UHF transmissions. Even then, a hardcore of viewers clung to 2-channel VHF black and white right up until the early 1980s. The 405-line system finally closed in 1983 – almost 20 years later.

With digital on the horizon, the government was keen to have the transition done much more quickly – if nothing else, the freed-up UHF spectrum could be sold on at a high premium. The BBC was tasked with getting people to switch to digital as soon as possible to allow for the analogue system to be shut down. In the end, this process took a little more than 10 years.

Much of the driving force for the switchover came from commercial providers. Sky switched from analogue to digital as soon as the technology was ready; shortly after, British Digital Broadcasting (later ONdigital, later still ITV Digital) appeared on terrestrial transmitters. Both used large marketing campaigns to drive switchover – Sky very successfully, BDB/On/ITV Digital notoriously poorly.

The BBC was left pushing the new services it had picked to pilot the digital systems while trying to stay out of the BSkyB/BDB arguments and trying not to promote either (there was also the two cable networks of the time, NTL and Telewest, but they need not bother us now any more than they bothered viewers then).

This is the BBC pushing its digital services in April 1999 on the Sky delivery platform. Although the services were Free to View and didn’t require a Sky viewing card, the digital boxes were all but impossible to get without going through Sky – and very expensive without Sky’s subsidy. Therefore the BBC had to remind viewers that they had already paid for the new services and were getting them free at the point of delivery, even though they were clearly likely to be paying Sky for the privilege anyway.

The services offered via Sky were a non-regionalised BBC One and BBC Two (in England; in the “national regions” the Wales/Scotland/NI services were made available), the “best of” channel BBC Choice, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament.

Coming soon were BBC Text – promising to be easier and quicker than Ceefax, it was neither and has never achieved Ceefax’s popularity – and “BBC Learning”. This would eventually launch as BBC Knowledge, filled with schools-type programmes and bits and pieces of heavier stuff, then quickly relaunch as a BBC version of UKTV’s UK Horizons with more upmarket and highbrow “educational” material, before finally morphing into BBC Four.

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