Whitehaven's Digital Revolution

By Glenn Aylett

Whitehaven, in Cumbria, was the first area in Britain to go totally digital - with the big switch-off on November 14th, 2007. Local resident and TBS stalwart Glenn Aylett reports.

Whitehaven, or more precisely the areas served by the Bigrigg transmitter in the borough of Copeland, became the first place in Britain to go over to digital television on November 14th. A huge clock on the harbour set up during the summer advertised the days, minutes and seconds that the town was due to go digital and a drop-in centre was set up to advise worried viewers about the changeover to digital, which meant for those who did not have a satellite dish, a Freeview box or a digital ready television (I had the latter) that they would be unable to watch television after 2 am on November 14th. Also a figure called Digit Al, a bad pun at the best of times, was used as a mascot for the switchover and as a character giving advice on Radio Cumbria and local television advertising.

For once, Whitehaven was at the forefront of a new broadcasting era, where previously we had lagged way behind the rest of the country: Independent Local Radio did not arrive until 1995, Channel Five could never be received properly without a satellite dish, some exposed parts of the town were still without Channel 4 as late as 1988, and Cumbria was the last part of England to receive ITV. No wonder most people in the town were excited about the change, as it meant an end to four channels only for poorer viewers and a lack of choice which came home to me on a wet summer's night in 2006 when I had the choice of three reality shows or Wimbledon. Digital would do away with all this, and I was keen especially to have BBC Four and More 4 from Channel 4 for some intellectual inspiration.

The Whitehaven News was especially enthusiastic about the changeover to digital, It commented, "Copeland has woken up this morning to the digital age".

The last three analogue television channels (BBC1, ITV1 and Channel 4) were switched off locally at 02:00 am. At 03:27 am, 20 Freeview channels and 10 radio stations started broadcasting to 25,000 households in and around Whitehaven.

The line-up includes BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News 24, ITV1, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 Channel 4, E4, More 4, and Five.

Ford Ennals, Chief Executive of Digital UK, the independent body co-ordinating switchover, said: "I'm delighted that today thousands of people in Whitehaven will be able to enjoy the great choice and extra features that digital TV has to offer. This is a big day both for the area and for television in the UK, and I'd like to thank all those who have helped ensure the first switchover has gone smoothly."

Due to work commitments, I was unable to stay up and see the last dying hours of analogue television in the town, but, watching Spooks and the BBC 10 O'Clock News, the caption which had warned for the previous month intermittently, "You will not be able to watch this channel after November 14th", became a permanent feature at the top of the screen, followed by, "Please remember to retune your digital equipment." Wandering off to bed at 10.30, I made a mental note to retune my television the following morning. November 14th was going to be the biggest day in Whitehaven's television history since the launch of Channel 4.

Unfortunately, the baby had destroyed the manual for the digital-ready LCD television I'd bought at the end of 2005, and wandering downstairs I decided to hope for the best as I pressed from ATV, which like its ITV contractor namesake was now no more, to DTV and pressed the menu. After a few warnings about previous data being lost - BBC Two and Five had already gone digital the previous month - I pressed the autotune and hoped for the best. After a few minutes of seeking channels, and seeing new names like BBC Four and CITV fly past on the automatic tuner, the television declared itself ready. I had now left behind the limited world of four channels, endless summer reality shows, the relatively poor analogue picture and sound quality, and quaint Ceefax, in favour of the light years ahead digital text services and interactive programming.

However, rather like the old saying, "if something is too good to be true, it usually is" does seem to apply to the digital experience for those without Sky in the town. The Freeview leaflet promised music channels, Sky News, QVC and the oddly named Dave channel (apparently a channel aimed at young men), but when I worked my way through the digital guide on the television, all I found were Five, without its two digital channels, and the digital offerings from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, as well as the four traditional channels, and a Community channel that only broadcast between 6 and 9am. Meanwhile the radio, apart from the adult rock station Heart, was dominated by BBC national stations, although I will admit Radio 2 sounds excellent on DTTV and fans of 5 Live Extra and 1 Extra won't have to fork out for a digital radio now.

Quite a few other viewers locally, while glad of the extra choice - I will admit I have become a bit of a BBC News 24 junkie at times - and the superior picture quality and the added interactive features, feel that the digital revolution has been done on the cheap, and that the three traditional broadcasters have merely extended the old monopoly they had with analogue television. "ITV2? All that ever shows is bloody Corrie omnibuses and that jungle (I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here) trash after 10 o'clock," was how one man I drink with, who is forthright in his views, described digital to me. The Freeview leaflet with its offer of 40 new channels has proved misleading, as Whitehaven only has 20 television and ten radio stations. The comments by the Broadcasting Minister Sean Woodward when Whitehaven was selected to be the first town to go digital in Britain, about Whitehaven "leading the digital revolution" seem to have a hollow ring to them for local Freeview viewers.

I decided to check as to why Whitehaven is half Freeview. Seemingly the changeover was done quickly and the Bigrigg transmitter was only set up for multiplexes of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, ie the former analogue channels and their digital offshoots, plus Five, which has a large following among male and older viewers locally, which was accomodated on a BBC multiplex. The two multiplexes that carry free digital channels from other broadcasters were not established at Bigrigg due to a relatively low local population which meant low viewing figures and advertising revenue. However, I have heard rumours that when the rest of the Border region goes digital at the end of 2008, the full Freeview service will be available. Yet, for now, viewers who want to see Dave and The Hits will have to take out a Sky subscription.

So, even with half a Freeview, what are my impressions of the new digital channels on offer in Whitehaven? Apart from the superb digital radio sound quality, although I will admit this won't sound too good on a cheap portable television, and the far better television picture quality, which has made forking out for an LCD television worthwhile, I have mixed views on my quadrupled number of television channels. Firstly, ITV must take the wooden spoon as their digital channels are done on the cheap with little thought for original programming or quality. If I thought ITV1 was terrible, then ITV2, home to endless Coronation Street re-runs( the same omnibus is shown on Saturdays and Sundays), repeats of ageing American people shows like Sally Jesse Raphael discussing subjects on the lines of a redneck discovering his daughter had come out as a lesbian, extended coverage of I'm A Celebrity...,and its own terrible XXL brand of programming that features chat shows hosted by Katie Price (Jordan) and some reality show called WAGs Boutique where footballers wives sell clothes or some such garbage. Clearly a case of a television channel dreamt up by the editor of HEAT magazine for HEAT readers as no one else could stomach such a " female lite" offering of shows.

Of the more niche ITV digital offerings, ITV3, which the broadcaster claims is an "over 35s" channel, sounded promising, as maybe it would be more discerning than ITV1 and 2, but for all it's mercifully free of celebs, soaps and Ant and Dec, it is basically ITV Gold, a channel showing repeats, albeit of a reasonably high standard, from ITV's drama and comedy archive with some BBC shows like The Two Ronnies. However, seeing the episode of Rising Damp at the same time each week where Rigsby thinks his cat has been run over, and studio-bound Taggarts (though a welcome return of these excellent-in-their-day dramas with Mark Mc Manus in charge when I saw them again after 20 years) where Taggart intones "there's been a murrrder" when a corpse is found, can only be watched so many times before boredom sets in. So no original drama or comedy that an older audience would appreciate then, and certainly no such thing as current affairs or documentaries even on this relatively upmarket part of the failing ITV empire, as the viewers might not understand - so much for the Grade revolution at ITV. As for ITV4, it only broadcasts for part of the day and this male-oriented channel consists largely of sport that isn't deemed important enough for ITV1, though quite useful for the Champions League when 1 is showing Chelsea and 4 is showing Liverpool, re-runs of old action series and imports, again a channel run on peanuts with little original programming. As for CITV, imported cartoons and toy adverts predominate, while I was expecting maybe some original programming or even classic fare like The Tomorrow People. Just as ITV1 has fallen to new lows, then digital ITV is even worse in places.

I haven't caught much of Channel 4's three digital offerings, as the main Channel 4 I tend to watch the most, but More 4, which aims itself at the better educated, traditional Channel 4 viewer, seems to be of a reasonable standard and I saw a very good Dispatches documentary on congestion which was the kind of programme 4 used to make in the eighties. E4 is, as it says, an entertainment channel, but rather heavy on re-runs of American sitcoms, teen shows and in the summer goes over to all night coverage of Big Brother, which is a cure for insomnia at the best of times watching the Big Brother misfits asleep, though I suppose this is preferable to their whinging and swearing when they're awake. Channel 4+ 1 is an extremely useful channel, though, as it shows the previous hour's programmes an hour later: this meant on a Tuesday night I could watch Spooks on BBC One and then watch Gordon Ramsay turn round a failing restaurant an hour later on 4+1 as the original episode clashed with Spooks. As for the text services, I have noticed a rather unique specialised text service for used cars which could be quite useful when buying another car comes up and the old Teletext looks far better on digital.

So, as in many other broadcasting areas, it falls to the BBC to set the standard. For all DOGs now appear on the BBC's digital channels, just as they do on commercial rivals, I suppose for all they look intrusive, at least you know which channel you're watching. As I've mentioned earlier, BBC News 24 has become very useful for me when I return from work. Instead of waiting until 6.00, or 6.30 if I miss the Six and have to watch ITV News, which is quite rare, I can now flick on BBC News 24 and this tells me what I want to know, while a news ticker along the bottom of the screen advises of the headlines, city news and sport in a similar format to that on Final Score.

Unlike the worthless children's offerings on CITV, CBBC and CBeebies, which is popular with the youngest member of the family, produce a large proportion of original children's programmes, including a worthy Doctor Who spin off, the Sarah Jane Adventures, featuring a remarkably well preserved Elizabeth Sladen. Also classic American cartoons are to be found on the two channels and it shows that the BBC has worked hard to produce two distinctive children's channels, CBBC for older children and CBeebies for the under fives.

Of the adult offerings, political anoraks, and I must admit I was one when I was younger, lapping up every political programme and magazine on the market, must be delighted with BBC Parliament which shows Westminster continually when it is in session, and also broadcasts from the devolved assemblies at other times. However, how I wished this channel existed in the eighties when I could have watched the ferocity of debate between Margaret Thatcher and the hapless Neil Kinnock and old characters like Tony Benn, Enoch Powell and Edward Heath weighing in with their opinions. These days the bland, spin-doctored nature of politics makes it less attractive to watch, but should an important debate that affects my life occur, I can tune into the channel and watch unrestricted coverage from the Commons.

BBC Three and BBC Four, which open at 7pm, I have found entertaining on the occasions I have watched them. Three, with its amusing ident of the slug yelling " Three" and its white on blue lettering, is aimed mainly at viewers under 35, but as a 39 year old I still find their programming as good as that on the two main BBC channels. Three reminds me of how Channel 4 was in the nineties, youthful and cutting edge without being populist for the sake of it. Currently, during the soap wasteland on BBC One and ITV1 between 7 and 8, I have been enjoying re runs of Doctor Who and of the original programming, The Mighty Boosh has proved very amusing, as well as a witty programme similar to Top of the Pops 2 called Songs You Hate to Love, where irritating, often bad but strangely likeable hits from years gone by are played. BBC Four, similar in its output to Radio 4 and the traditional BBC Two, I would like to watch more as World News at 7pm is an interesting round up of world news and just before this article was composed, I saw a documentary on people's experiences on the home front during the Second World War.

However, my main interest with the BBC's digital services, apart from some of the programmes, is to "press the red button" and to use the interactive services which are light years ahead of the Space Invaders graphics of Ceefax and the interminable wait for pages to turn. Unlike Ceefax, although the page numbering remains similar, I can now scroll up and down pages at will and can split the screen by having BBCi in the right hand corner and the picture in the left, rather than text superimposed over the picture and the light purple background and gold text is far easier on the eye than the stark looking colours used on Ceefax.

Another facility that's very useful with BBCi is, as occured on the 23rd November, when England, Wales and Northern Ireland were playing, a menu which offered me the choice of three games: as Northern Ireland had a chance of qualifying, I flicked between England and Northern Ireland, something which would have been impossible in the analogue era. For sports fans in general, the red button can be useful if you want to see a continuation of Final Score when the news starts and rugby fans have an equivalent to football's Final Score by pressing BBCi. Although sport is the main beneficiary, my mother uses BBCi to hear the expert commentary on Strictly Come Dancing and many other BBC shows have interactive facilities.

So what is my overall impression on Whitehaven going digital? Obviously I was delighted that an area noted for being a media backwater in the past was chosen to go digital and that most of the town's population were keen to embrace the changeover and were well prepared, with the Whitehaven News estimating only 500 homes had not made the change by November 14th. Those who had bought Freeview boxes and digital-ready televisions would now see a return on their investment and the rather limiting four channel world was to be replaced by a swathe of new channels and a far better picture than analogue, which on its last day seemed to look particularly poor. However, despite the aural and visual gains, the town has been sold short and has only twenty channels instead of forty promised in Freeview literature and the digital services offered by ITV are largely rubbish, though this was to be expected, judging by the programmes on ITV1. I have also heard in an area adjoining a local park, only the five main networks can be received due to the presence of large trees and viewers, who have often forked out £ 30 for a Freeview box or bought a digital television, will now need a satellite dish to receive more channels. I feel that rather than being sold a Rolls Royce as promised in 2006, Whitehaven has been sold a Ford Focus over the Ford Fiesta that was analogue television. The Focus is considerably better, but it's certainly not the Rolls Royce we were promised.

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Article ©2007 Glenn Aylett

Compilation ©2007 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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