We're All Normal And We Want Our Freeview

by Quinn

My first venture into digital television was with the ill-fated on/ITV digital a few years ago. When they went bump (while trying to drag a few lower league football clubs with them) I wasn’t all that bothered; most of the channels we lost were rubbish (my wife missed E4, I quite liked Paramount for “Seinfeld“), but we kept the set top box, and still got the BBC digital channels, which were the ones we probably watched the most, and ITV2 was still there for the occasional Inspector Morse re-run. Then, when Freeview started, these channels were joined by some half decent offerings; UKTV History has its moments, the two music channels are okay for a change, Sky Sports News is occasionally worth watching. Basically, it does us fine.

Except the old ITV digital box started playing up; it was getting to the point where I had to pull the plug out of the wall at least once a day when the whole thing froze. Solution? The fantastic new DigiFusion FVRT100, with built in hard drive recorder. Basically, rather than having a separate set top box and video, you have a combined unit which records your TV programmes to a hard disk, so preventing the need to go searching for blank video tapes. It has two tuners incorporated into it, so you can watch one channel and record another; in fact, you can record two channels at the same time, and watch a recording, should you so wish. It also automatically records up to 30 minutes of the channel you are watching onto a temporary file; so you can “pause” and “rewind” live TV. This has become a real boon; when the phone goes in the middle of a programme you are watching, or if your nose tells you your son’s nappy needs changing…now! It’s a little marvel.

You may say that this seems very similar to the Sky+ box, and you’d be right; they are basically the same thing. There are a few differences I have noticed though, in purchasing a Freeview hard drive recorder compared to Sky+

  • My box records up to 40 hours, compared to Sky’s 20 hours. Already DigiFusion are talking about bringing out an 80 hour version.
  • With Sky, you get the box you are given; with Freeview you have a selection of different boxes to choose from; DigiFusion, Pace, Thomson and Humax all manufacture them. Humax are currently working on a Freeview TV with integrated Hard disk.
  • You have to wait for Sky+ to be delivered and installed, at a cost; I bought my box from Currys, plugged it in, and I was away (although I dare say there are technical reasons why you can’t install Sky+ yourself)
  • Sky charges a monthly fee for Sky+; unless you are already on one of their more expensive monthly packages. With my box there is nothing else to pay.
  • The DigiFusion box is £40 cheaper. I think the Thomson box was cheaper still.

I know that this is a far from scientific comparison of the two systems, and I may have missed some benefits Sky+ has over a Freeview box; obviously you get far more channels to watch with Sky, and you can’t watch Premiership football on Freeview; but isn’t that what the pub is for? Also, I am not saying that Sky+ is rubbish, because it’s not; in fact it is because it is so good that I wanted the same thing for Freeview. What I find interesting in comparing the two systems though, in this regard at least, is how Sky seems to be acting in a way similar to BT, pre-privatisation, where it was a case of “Do you want a new phone? Well, we’ll tell you when you get it, and what it looks like, and when you will be connected.” Yet Sky is part of a massive private company; why would they act in a way I find reminiscent of a public monopoly?

Firstly, of course, in the market for a Sky hard drive recorder, they are a monopoly. Sky alone provides satellite digital television to the UK, and only they provide a hard drive recorder with an integrated satellite tuner. They do face some sort of competition, from Freeview, and cable, but if you want the range of channels that only satellite technology provides, and you want to record one digital channel whilst watching another, then Sky+ is it.

Secondly, I have a feeling that in many ways, large private companies actually have more in common with the public sector than they do with small private companies, at least in their day to day running. I hasten to add that this is just my little pet theory, likely to be contradicted at a stroke by a well placed statistic or two, but it is a theory based on my own observations having worked in the public and private sector, in large and small companies. Of course, private companies have a profit motive that is absent from the public sector, and this will affect their decision-making; but public firms do have their own financial considerations. Meanwhile, within large private companies, you can find vast swathes where the profit motive seems an irrelevant and alien concept; the senior managers who are interested in profits are often insulated and ignorant about how many areas of their business operate. Examples available on request.

People often talk about comparing the public and private sector as if it was a simple divide; Ruth Lea of the Centre for Policy Studies is typical when speaking to the Telegraph of comparing “the dynamic private sector to the wasteful public sector”, but I think this is a simplistic comparison, even if there is some truth in it. Similarly, Tim Worstall replied to my comment on his blog by saying that what he dislikes about the State is “the meetings, conferences, planning sessions and bureaucrats”, and he is right to dislike them; but they are far from the sole preserve of the public sector.

I would say that it is competition that makes the difference, rather than simply whether a firm is in the private or public sector; so, where Sky do not face any meaningful competition, their service suffers by comparison with a similar market where competition does exist.

I think that this illustrates part of my concern when people preach the virtues of the unrestrained free market. It works brilliantly well in many ways, at least where the actions taken to maximise profits coincide with actions that benefit the consumer, as they very often do. However, some people talk about the benefits of the free market and the benefits of perfect competition as if they were the same thing, when in most cases the free market throws up oligopolies and monopolistic competition. If we do just leave things to the free market, what is to prevent a gradual slide towards monopolies across all markets, and where will we stand then? Will we be much, if any better off than under a public sector monopoly; and if not, how can such a drift be prevented, other than by state action of the sort the OFT engage in, and which is so criticised by some proponents of the free market.

What is the answer? You didn’t really come here for an answer did you; I am certainly the wrong person to ask. I am just throwing ideas and thoughts about to see if they make any sense. Do they? I may have a degree in Economics, and so have forgotten more than most people know about the subject, but that is probably the problem; I have forgotten it, and I just carry about a little knowledge at a dangerously low level. I think all I really learnt at college was a cynicism and scepticism towards all economic theories.

I will tell you what I am not saying, however; I am not attacking the free market, and I am not arguing for a large state. Sometimes it is assumed that if you question the free market, or defend the state in any way, then you want politicians to organise everything for us, and for the state to tell us what we are having for tea. I don’t. I want the state to be as small as possible, and for taxes to be as low as possible, albeit I would like them to be more progressive than they are now. And it would be lovely to think that leaving everything to the market would solve all our problems, that some invisible hand will always be there to mop our brow and steer us back onto the right course when things get tough; but it seems a somewhat naïve view to me. I suppose I just think that market failure occures a bit more often than some people believe, and that the state may have to nip in now and then to help out more regularly than some would like.

Or perhaps I have just rambled on, at perhaps too much length, over reacting to what is just a rather fine piece of consumer electronics.