Intro to Digital Broadcasting (audience communities?)

The March 2005 issue of Wired proclaimed the "end of radio (as we know it)".

In America, those with a digital satellite radio tuner are treated to around 130 channels with just under half of those broadcasting commercial free, for about £6 per month. There are two competing services, XM and Sirius. Sirius is said to be planning to add a few channels of satellite TV, aimed at in-car (or, more correctly, in SUV) viewing, to their packages sometime in 2006. High-Definition (HD) Radio, the audio only relative of HDTV, is also on its way in America although, at the moment, JVC is the only consumer electronics manufacturer offering the compatible hardware.

In the UK, as with in other European countries, the digital platform for radio is DAB.
According to it’s entry in the free community built WikiPedia, DAB, which is broadcast in "MP2", was developed as part of European Union project EU147 – the same project where the popular MP3 format originated.


Dixon’s, the high street electronics retailer, recently reported that they’re now selling twice as many DAB tuners than they are analogue tuners. I’ve had the Pure 702ES DAB tuner for just over a year and have made the following observations:

  • Sound quality, whilst comparable to MP3 or ACC audio, isn’t “CD Quality”.
  • DAB isn’t really “interference free” – instead of crackle, the sound gurgles with digital artefacts when there is interference with the signal.
  • The best feature is being able to tune by radio station name rather than frequency, meaning I can find and remember the names of new stations quite easily.
  • The scrolling text (stations using DAB can also send data alongside the audio) is useful for getting the name of an artist whose music I might want to buy. I’ve seen examples of this feature being used for user generated content in the form of text messages from the audience being streamed – something that would be quite simple to do, even if it involved someone manually copying and pasting SMS messages into the broadcast production tool.
  • Gaining access to some of the new digital only stations, for example the BBC’s eclectic 6 Music, are worth buying a DAB tuner for if you can’t get access through your digital television service or the internet.

Speaking of digital television, on my last visit to the US, I noticed a lot of advertising for various digital cable television services. One of the things that I immediately noticed is that digital cable in America seems to mean only an increased number of channels and the ability to subscribe to pay-per view events.

Digital Television here provides not only provides increased channels, but also enhanced services. For example, Sky viewers who are tempted by an advertisement for Domino’s Pizza can simply “press the red button” to place an order from their remote control. Other services, such as the BBCi’s enhanced Wimbledon coverage, allow viewers to follow several different programme streams simultaneously – allowing them, for example, to jump from court to court in order to follow several matches at once.

Digital Television in the UK comes in three flavours – subscription free Digital Terrestrial (Freeview), Digital Cable (several companies), and Digital Satellite (Sky Digital). Additionally, TopUpTV provides an 11 channel “top up” to the channels offered via Freeview. I’m not an expert in Digital Television but if you’re interested in finding out more, Broadband Bananas is a networking organisation for the Interactive TV industry and has an online archive of interactive television services from around the world.

So what about user-to-user interactivity on these new digital platforms? A friend of mine, who will remain anonymous because I don’t want either of us to get sued, was the Director of Broadcasting for the launch of a youth oriented channel on Sky a few years ago. The channel is a continual loop of the same content, I think around 72 hours of it. The revenue model for the channel is simple and successful: people, mostly teenagers, will pay to participate in on-screen SMS chat rooms. A moderator sits connected to a private IRC chat server which, with some custom software, has a built in SMS gateway. When a member of the audience sends a text to the number advertised on screen, a reverse billing system charges their mobile account and the message drops into the chat channel. If there is no one in the chat to reply to the viewer via their own SMS, the moderator often helpfully assumes (“/nick ClAiRe19hoTTieInbRisTol”) the role of a young, attractive single girl and helps the user use all their pay-as-you-go credits in a matter of minutes.

But it’s not all that disheartening. Tom Coates, author of the blog, has some particularly interesting ideas on building social software for Digital Television. After reading Tom’s presentation and blog entry, I’m convinced that television viewing need not be as passive as it is today and that, in the future, sitting home watching the telly might become THE way to meet new people and to interact with our friends and neighbours.

I don’t personally watch a lot of television and this leaves me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to chit-chatting with my work colleagues or random people down at the pub. That’s because television viewing has, in a sense, always been a community building experience. If you doubt this try hanging around the water cooler or where the smokers congregate outside the side door and listen in on their conversations. What are they talking about? Probably something they saw on TV. It remains to be seen whether Digital TV (and/or digital radio) can take this collective experience to another level.