The empire strikes back 

1 January 2003 tbs.pm/1852

With excited eyes, he watches digital TV through his aerial and even renews his prepay subscription for a second year such is the appeal of this pay-TV lark.

ITV Digital

Unbeknownst to him, dark forces are gathering and the evil twin overlords, Emperor Granada and Emperor Carlton, unleash their force of imperial Receivers.

The army of Deloitte and Touche scour the galaxy until they find the galactic off switch. Miffed at losing £60, our hero continues to watch what television remains as the rebel Freeview group attacks the twin Emperors.

They sweep through the UK but disaster looms as the Imperial Liquidators take over. The new force of Grant Thornton appears, and threatens to take Andrew’s box away unless he pays the price of £39.99. The saga continues.

Meanwhile in London

After the collapse of ITV Digital, a number of customers moved over to Sky and cable, but many stayed with the free-to-air channels on DTT. With the launch of Freeview, suddenly the number of channels was filling up again.

Those who had left pay-TV behind were slowly but surely forgetting about the whole debacle. The whole mess was being left behind and buried in people’s memories.

Well, until Grant Thornton announced it intended to get the boxes back.

The timing of the announcement that former customers could either return their box, or pay £39.99 to keep it, came just weeks after the launch of Freeview.

The customer demand for the new DTT service had seen the new set top boxes fly off the shelves. Many of the box manufacturers had already cashed in, selling their stockpiles of ITV Digital boxes cheaply In High Street retailers. With that in mind, what better time to cash in on the boom?

The contract most customers had with ITV Digital stated that the box was the property of the company and merely loaned to the customer for the duration of their subscription. As liquidator, Grant Thornton also has a legal obligation to make as much money for the creditors as possible.

Whilst many (including myself) doubted they’d ever try, someone obviously realised that there was money in trying to get former subscribers to buy their own box off the company, making the former subscriber the legal owner of the box.

Even if only 1,000 people out of the one million or so former subscribers pay up the £40, that’s still £40,000. Admittedly a trifle in the debt mountain, but better than nothing. But what about those who don’t want to pay?

With a new set top box costing you about £100, the price may look a bargain. However, in comparison with the newer models the old ITV Digital boxes are looking pretty decrepit. Changing channels, viewing digital text – all are slower and more cumbersome.

The age of the boxes is also a factor. Mine is almost three years old and showing its age. The remote control is getting a bit unreliable and the box itself seems to be crashing more. Why would I want to pay £40 just to keep something that might not even last another six months and that won’t be supported if it fails?

I’ve decided that I won’t be paying to keep mine. A new box, whilst costing more, seems a much more sensible. If and when I receive my letter asking to pay or return the box, return will be the option I pick.

But what will happen to all these boxes that may get returned? This is an interesting question. Whilst Grant Thornton are claiming they have a buyer for the returned boxes, how many customers would actually want to buy it, and for what price?

Whilst brand new boxes were going for £80, how many people would be willing to pay that for a box with three years service?

How many consumers would pay even £40 for a set-top box with 900 days on the clock, sold as is, with no support? It doesn’t seem to be a particularly good deal somehow. Would the profit of reselling the box even cover the cost of collecting them all up from around the country?

All of this makes me wonder just how hard the liquidators are going to try to get their boxes back. Is the whole trick just to try and get those couple of thousand people to send their £40 off and then forget about the rest?

Or are they really going to collect them all up in the hope that by the time they’ve done it, they can make a fiver or so?

And then there’s another spanner in the works – the pre-paid subscribers. Most subscribers paid by monthly direct debit, and will have lost no money, however there is a sizeable minority of customers who paid for a years viewing in advance, and didn’t get all of what they paid for. I got only six months and thus lost £60.

Whilst the whole process of trying to get boxes back is to make more money for the creditors, it’s also worth remembering who the principle creditors are. Whilst many might think it’s the Football League, the two biggest creditors are in fact the authors of this saga – Carlton and Granada.

The two companies who got everyone into this mess in the first place will be the biggest beneficiaries of the closing down process, with former pre-pay subscribers right down at the end of the queue.

With that in mind, it seems a bit rich to ask people who have lost money to give back their one trump card – an asset of their creditor now valued at £40. How many pre-pay customers will make a fuss remains to be seen, but I for one will be asking the liquidators how they would react if in my position.

There have been rumours in the press that former pre-pay customers who have lost more than £40 won’t be hassled too much about returning their boxes. Although as I have yet to even receive one letter from the company, that rumour remains untested by myself.

One thing is certain though – it’s going to take a while for the whole ITV Digital saga to be finally complete, and, as the whole process has proved, the ending is far from certain.

Several questions look likely to be unanswered for a while. How many people will pay the £40? How many people will try to return their boxes? How many people will actually have their box collected from them? What will happen to the boxes if they are collected? What will happen to those of us prepaid customers who have lost money in the process? Only time will tell.

[Since this article was written, ITV/ONdigital boxes have been given to their users. See Paying Up by Andrew Bowden for more information]

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