Monday, 23 November 2009

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out In The Middle Of BBC News 24 – It’s The Digital Switchover!

Not one, but two disappointing YouTube-based updates on the same day? We’re spoiling you, we really are.

So, the Big Digital Switch-Off is now underway, and given the number of posters featuring That Robot Formerly Voiced By Matt Lucas But Which Has Since Become Mute (possibly not the robot’s real name) hanging from lamp-posts in our vicinity, it’s a big deal. Certainly big enough for us to have to retune our Freeview box every few weeks if we want to avoid accidentally recording Five’s 8.30pm output with our series link for The Daily Show, and big enough for ‘our’ BBC region to become BBC Wales, but for our ITV region to remain Granada. Maybe the region thing is down to continental drift, who knows. But anyway, yeah, big.

How is this being marked? Pretty much every transmitter has been pumping out an analogue signal for at least fifty years – you’d hope they’d be given a last hurrah before having the plug kicked out. While it’d be a bit much to expect the sort of big showbiz farewell old ITV franchises used to put on once they’d lost their licence, it would be nice.

imageYou could guess the drill here. A montage of some of the programming put out over the transmitter over the years, interviews with local ‘celebrities’ (possibly restricted to a reporter from the local news and the bloke from Safestyle Windows, but hey). A sombre chat with the engineers who’ll be carrying out the actual switch off. A jovial glance at some of the transmitter-based bloopers over the years – mostly where the picture would cut to static, but if we’re lucky there could be a misspelling of the word “Independent” on the transmitter-generated caption for the 1979 ITV strike.

Actually, having said all that, it’d be a rubbish idea. No wonder we’re not director general of the BBC. We didn’t even make it to the interview stage.

They could at the very least give the switch-off a cursory mention on the BBC News Channel just before the channel falls off air, in the manner of Philip Schofield saying “goodbye to Northern Ireland” when he was in The Broom Cupboard and they were about to cut to their regional news. That’d be quite good. Or maybe just put up a special caption, and a nice bit of music. Even a Ceefax page saying what’s going on, for the benefit of the elderly and/or bewildered. Or even, just for a bit of a giggle, let the nuclear attack emergency broadcast system kick in. Chortle!

imageAfter all, with such a rich history in broadcasting, surely the BBC wouldn’t let the UHF signal they’ve been sending us so lovingly for so many years end with a whimper? By just letting it die in the middle of the overnight BBC News simulcast? Surely not that. That’d just be shi- oh? They did just that? Ah.

“Bye Winter Hill! Don’t let 56 years of transmission hit you on the arse on the way out!”

“See you in hell, Moel-Y-Parc!

So much for BBC Two in the UK, but what about the digital Checkpoint Charlie in other nations? Germany, for example. Back in the pre-digital Sky era, we used to love wandering through the high numbers on the Pace receiver checking out German telly, and it seemed to be very professionally put together. Some channels used to fill the wee small hours by broadcasting repeats of news bulletins from the 1970s (yes, really! How excellent is that, eh?), or rolling as-live thru-windscreen coverage of someone driving through Germany (again, yes really! How utterly uninteresting is that, eh?). Surely our stereotypically efficient Teutonic cousins would make the effort?

image Sadly, and similarly, no. Going by this grainy couldn’t-even-be-bothered-running-an-aerial-lead-into-their-PVR footage, German station ARD (was that the one who ran repeats of Monty Python series four in the mid-90s?) simply fell off the air with a whimper in the middle of an entertainment show.


Meanwhile, the feed of ARD on the Grünten E2 transmitter at least had the good grace to go out after the end of a news bulletin, before crashing quite amusingly into the testcard and a piece of hugely inappropriate music. Five bonus points to them.

Leave it to Sweden to do things properly. The analogue farewell for viewers of TV4 saw a news bulletin interviewing the very engineers who’ll be shutting off the analogue signal, before falling off-air in the middle of a cooking programme. Admittedly, it should have been done with a special closedown concert featuring Whale, The Wannadies and The Knife, but it’s a marked improvement on what we’ve seen so far.

Hopping over the Atlantic, the home of Still Bothering To Do Regional TV Properly, it seems quite a bit more was made of the switchover.

image A lot of – if not all - channels ran rolling captions over their analogue broadcasts detailing what was about to happen. If nothing else, it gives us an excuse to post a clip of the hugely underrated Drew Carey Show.


As for the actual turn-off itself, it was handled so well, we’re almost feeling guilty about about the haphazardly Photoshopped picture just up there. There are plenty of clips of these on YouTube, so we’ve had the BrokenTV researcher monkeys poring over as many as several of them to bring you


Iiiiiiiiiin three! Illinois-based WGEM went about things very nicely, with the whole thing making up part of a news bulletin. No Swedish engineers in ill-considered knitwear here – the switch-off is handled by one of the station’s reporters, after a cheery explanation on what’ll happen next. Hurrah!


Iiiiiiiiin two! Unless Fox News have been lying to us, PBS affiliate WSRE is sure to sign off with a BBC World News bulletin, a plea to get everyone driving hybrids, and will end on an animation of Richard Dawkins jumping up and down on Old Glory as a sarcastic Europop remix of The Star-Spangled Banner plays out in the background. Well, it doesn’t. Instead, we get a lovely slideshow of transmission rooms, musings on the era of analog(ue) broadcasting, a tremendously overcomplicated mention of the frequency the channel has been broadcasting on (along with a somewhat overdesigned slide of the number “23”), information on the FCC’s stipulations on channel closedowns, a quick ‘compilation’ of test patterns (including the infamous ‘Indian’ one), shots of past WSRE programming (“Fish’n With Andy”), and a quick “thank you” to loyal viewers.

In short, just like how an IBA Engineering Announcement would look in 2009, if they still existed. Splendid.


And iiiiiiiiiiin one! WDEF-TV does things in as perfect a manner as humanely possible. Bonus points right from the start, for cutting off David Bloody Letterman in mid-sentence, cutting to a “DTV Update” as if it were a newsflash. Newsflashes are always exciting, as long as they don’t involve our impending deaths. There then follows a quick look back at the history of the analog(ue) coverage offered by the network over the years, and a rundown of just why digital is much better. The bulletin ends with a splendid montage of local WDEF output over the years, including glances at delightfully lo-fi weather reports, news teams and caption cards. After that, it’s quickly back to Letterman, with the signal quite nicely cutting out before Dave can open his gob. Textbook.

In summary, come on The BBC. You’ve still got several regions to close down – get the local news teams in to make something special of it. It’s no good looking at ITV – their regional output has long since been a joke, but the annual regional concerts for Children In Need show that the Beeb can still do this sort of thing properly. Come on, we want to see Gordon Burns on BBC North-West blowing out a candle at 00:29 on the 4th of December to mark the end of analogue, and we want it, erm, then.


6 .:

Tanya Jones said...

It's like you're writing this just for me :)

Steve Williams said...

Of course, last time we had a switchover, the Beeb certainly made the effort...

Anyway, as BBC Wales replacing BBC North West as your main channel, my parents had this problem too, and it's all to do with the Moel-y-Parc transmitter being much more powerful than before, so it's more likely that your digibox will pick that up during a scan. In addition, it's also at a lower frequency than Winter Hill, so they'll find it first and thus assign it to BBC1.

What I did for my parents was that on their Freeview box, it's got an option to Scan Via Channel, which does it via frequency, so I got it to scan UHF Channel 62 alone, which is the frequency Winter Hill used for BBC2 (I don't remember this, the analogue channel numbers were in the manual of an old telly we have) and is miles away from any Moel-y-Parc ones (which are all in the forties, I think). Doing that it picked up the North West channels alone.

However, I'm not sure how many Freeview boxes have that option. But if it does, scan on UHF Channel 62.

Digital switchover must be a complete pain in the arse in Wrexham becuase you can pick up North West, Wales and Midlands telly, and I know there's a Digital UK switchover advert in St George's Crescent which has the Welsh switchover dates, which are a week ahead, which could be confusing.

Fortunately, I don't have to live with this carnage on a daily basis as Yorkshire isn't switching to 2011 and my analogue reception's so crap I've more or less migrated to cable completely.

Mark X said...

Cheers, Tanya. Keep up the top work on N2S!

Steve: Gah, I was only thinking of that 405 line closedown the other day (see the YouTube clip, that is. No way would I have been allowed to stay up 'til closedown in 1985), and should have included it. Ah well.

When I lived in Wrexham, for a good couple of years it was one of the few parts of the UK where you got three ITV regions on a Sky Digibox without having to manually add regions, as it was on the cusp of several regions. HTV Wales on 103, with Granada and Central in the 900s, if you're counting. I think when ITV London was added to all digiboxes later on, due to it having an Audio Described feed, the additional regions were removed. Not that there's much difference between non-Scottish ITV regions these days anyway.

Up by me (Flintshire), the switchover adverts/posters/pennants (what do you call them when they're hanging from lampposts?) carry the swapover dates for both regions, though pre-switch I'm pretty sure Flint Mountain being in the way made it pretty hard to get a Welsh terrestrial channel on a standard aerial anyway.

Meanwhile, despite being great in every other way, my Topfield Freeview+ box really doesn't like the retune. As I found when sitting down to watch my series linked recording of The Thick Of It, only to find the box had recorded the 'second' BBC One channel it'd found instead (with a similar knock-on effect for everything else until I messed around with settings).

Unrelatedly, and this is just me thinking aloud, nothing to do with anything else now, anyone remember the nation-regional versions of BBC Choice? What a stupid waste of money they were, eh? Only about fifty-thousand people had digital telly at the time, so why not put on three hours a night of programming just for the tiny fraction of them in Wales or Northern Ireland? I dread to think what BBC Three Wales might be like if they'd kept with that idea.

scissorkicks said...

Magnificent post. To paraphrase Matthew Bright - this is my porn. Love it.

Gerry said...

The name of the robot was Digit Al. Seriously.

Mark X said...

Digit Al? So obvious, with hindsight. Almost up there with the billboard spokesmen for Regal cigarettes, Reg and Al.

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