Saturday, 21 August 2010

Download The First Annual Not ‘The Ofcom Digital Radio Progress Report’ Report

Download this report here

In July 2010, Ofcom had published its first annual report on the progress made in the UK with take-up and usage of digital radio. I criticised the report in this blog for being selective with data and distorting the real picture of the slow take-up of DAB radio.

Ofcom responded to two of my criticisms in a subsequent news article in Media Week. Ofcom explained that it had “categorised ‘unspecified’ listening as ‘analogue’ rather than ‘digital’ listening because it did not want to exaggerate ‘digital’ listening.” What?

This response seems only to confirm my assertion that Ofcom invented the numbers it published. There are two possible scenarios: either Ofcom did not realise that deliberately mis-stating the results of market research breaches the Code of Conduct of the Market Research Society; or Ofcom did realise this but decided to do it anyway. I am uncertain which scenario is scarier. If Ofcom’s invented RAJAR statistics had been included in an advertisement, it would be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. Adding the ‘don’t know’ answers to either the ‘for’ or the ‘against’ totals in any consumer survey is a crime against statistics.

Secondly, Ofcom responded to my criticism that it had not published historical data to demonstrate how close we are to achieving the 50% digital listening criterion set by government. Ofcom said that it “did not set historical figures next to the forecasts because they are not formal criteria”. What?

I suggest that Ofcom stops daydreaming about a DAB future and starts listening to the words of its government paymasters. To take just one example of dozens, on 8 July 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said very plainly:

“We will only consider implementing a Digital Radio Switchover once at least 50% of all listening is already on digital or, to put it another way, when analogue listening is in the minority.”

Besides, Ofcom’s report itself had noted (in two places) that:

“A decision on switchover could only made once two criteria had been fulfilled [sic]:
• when 50% of all radio listening is via digital platforms; and
• when national DAB coverage is comparable to FM …”

The Ofcom Digital Radio Progress Report published last month was required by the Digital Economy Act 2010 to inform the government how close the UK is to achieving this 50% criterion. Yet, bizarrely, the very numbers the government wanted to see were missing from the relevant Ofcom graph.

In the spirit of constructive action, I have collated a short collection of graphs and tables in a presentation titled The First Annual Not ‘The Ofcom Digital Radio Progress Report’ Report. It can be downloaded here for free. All of the data within are derived from freely published industry sources to which Ofcom had access.

The first section of the report demonstrates that none of the radio industry forecasts for UK digital radio take-up stand a chance of being achieved, whether those predictions were made by the government, its committees, Ofcom, RadioCentre, Value Partners or whomever. These forecasts were not just wrong – they were wildly wrong.

The inability of forecasters to observe the reality of slowing DAB radio take-up in the UK was underlined by a forecast published in August 2010 by a US company that predicted:

“By 2015, the worldwide installed base of digital radio receivers, excluding handsets, is expected to reach nearly 200 million units. … ‘The adoption of DAB radios in Europe has been led primarily by tabletop radio sales in the UK,’ says [Sam] Rosen. In addition to the US and the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway all have significant broadcast infrastructure in place, with Australia, Germany and France to complete the majority of their infrastructure in 2011.”

Yes, and pigs will fly. It has taken a decade for 11 million DAB radios to be sold in the UK, and they still only account for 16% of radio listening. Far from the UK’s DAB broadcast infrastructure being almost complete, there is an impasse about who will stump up the money to render it fit for purpose. France is still debating whether to go digital at all. Germany abandoned its first effort and is planning a second attempt. Besides, the US, UK, French and Australian technology systems for digital terrestrial radio are each mutually exclusive. There is no globally agreed standard for digital terrestrial radio, so there is no universal ‘digital radio’ receiver, and nothing like 200 million digital radios (of all types) will be sold by 2015.

But a woefully inaccurate, over-optimistic forecast is always a good excuse for writing fantasy news. In the US, Media Post reported:

“HD digital radio is poised for rapid growth over the next few years … with much of the increase coming abroad, especially in Europe, where various governments have established HD radio as the national standard. … US consumers have purchased 4 million HD radio sets, while European consumers – led by the UK – have purchased about 13.5 million.”

Oh dear. Lie One: the American HD radio system is not a national standard in any European country. Lie Two: not a single HD radio has been sold in the UK. Lie Three: maybe 13 HD radios have been sold in Europe, but certainly not 13 million.

Consequently, US broadcast industry trade body NAB summarised this completely inaccurate news story ("... the real growth is happening overseas, where governments have already established HD [radio] as a standard technology") and sent it to everyone on its mailing list. The whole of the US radio sector must be amazed that Europe, led by the UK, has embraced American HD radio technology so warmly, while it is failing so dismally in its homeland. Wrong! In reality, no consumer in Europe has even heard of HD radio (except for a few techies testing it in Switzerland).

Closer to home, the continuing failure of the DAB digital radio system to impress European consumers seems to have impacted thinking at the European Broadcasting Union [EBU], which has supported Europe-wide implementation of DAB since 1986. In outlining the agenda of its fourth Digital Radio Conference [DRC10], the EBU came close to acknowledging that DAB is no longer ‘the future of radio’:

“Where previous [conference] editions have focused on the relative merits of the different digital radio platforms and their roll-out across Europe, DRC10 will focus on radio's position within a pluralistic distribution model. That the discussion of digital radio's future has, to date, been weighted towards different platforms is understandable given the uneven pace of Eureka 147 (DAB/DAB+/DMB) adoption and the rapid deployment of internet to European homes. Indeed, technical development has now reached something of a plateau. … The debate has moved forward from which platform might 'win' to how best to chart a digital future for radio on multiple platforms. … A more fundamental question then is 'what is the case for digital radio?'. This is about business and social arguments for and against the development of digital radio in all its forms. It involves the economics of radio revenues and costs, the social value, the mix of public and commercial broadcasters, as well as the quality and variety of the offering.”

“Uneven pace”? “Plateau”? “Multiple platforms”? Am I the only one to smell EBU back-peddling here on the DAB issue? At last year’s EBU conference, I seemed to be the only speaker exploring “the economics of radio revenues and costs” amongst a sea of technologists whose enthusiasm for DAB remained unsullied by the constraints of the economics of radio. Maybe the penny has dropped – a platform remains no more than a platform if you cannot afford to fill it with compelling, exclusive radio content, and convince consumers to use it, and generate a profit from it.

Here in the UK, while the biggest commercial radio owners have already baled out of most of their DAB commitments (and the BBC is trying to close two of its digital stations), the digital minnows are left suffering the economic consequences of a platform that has effectively been thrown to the dogs. Passion For The Planet, an independent digital-only station that has persevered on the DAB platform since 2002, announced in August 2010 that it will no longer broadcast on DAB in London. Managing director Chantal Cooke explained:

“DAB is a great medium for radio, but squabbling within the industry and a lack of clarity and direction from Ofcom leaves us worried that radio may well have missed a great opportunity. I believe London has too many stations, and the signal on the ‘London 3’ multiplex has always been, and continues to be, very poor. The lack of a robust signal has hampered independent services from the start, yet neither the multiplex operators nor Ofcom has taken the problem seriously. Passion for the Planet has spent a small fortune broadcasting on ‘London 3’ because we believed in the platform but, while there are still so many issues to be rectified, further investment in DAB in London has become increasingly difficult to support.”

The writing on the wall for DAB’s impending failure is writ so large now that Ofcom staff must have to leave work under cover of darkness not to see it. Large parts of the radio industry evidently have no faith in DAB ever replacing analogue radio. However, over at Ofcom HQ, the futile work continues to try and convince consumers and the government that DAB is still ‘the future of radio’. We will probably never know how much public money and time has been wasted on these foolish endeavours.

[many thanks to John Catlett and Eivind Engberg for their valuable contributions]


Anonymous said...

This is great - thanks, Grant! I have been wrestling with some way of incorporating that bogus ABI HD radio report (or, is that supposed to be "HD Radio") into my blog, and you have pointed out that which I suspected. Keep calling out the digital radio lies, Grant!

DP said...

A beautiful set of curves. Showing reality. Versus their illusion. And failure to communicate.

And, their DAB listening includes FM and Internet on DAB/FM and DAB/FM/Internet radios—not credited to FM or Internet!.

In addition to their listening being only live broadcasters, slanted to subscribers—grossly understating (including requiring write-in) for smaller commercial, community, student, hospital, pirate, Internet-only, and ex-UK—and not including listen-later, podcasts, or personal tracklisting (which are Internet and not DAB).

And, what are the additional costs to build-out DAB transmission to (about) equal FM? Seems about equal to current, to-date capital investment costs considered ~89-90% reception to get ~95%, and about doubled again to get ~99%? So, ~£500 million(?) for current ~89-90% X ~2 = ~£1 billion for ~95%? And, X ~2 = ~£2 billion for ~99%? And, X ~2 for BBC and Commercial? Seems, in any case, easily more than another £1 billion (requested/suggested/required Government subsidy)—>10 X the £100 million suggested as next step, from BBC excesses.

Excluding Listener costs to replace their more than 50 million home radios and more than 30 million car radios—for several billion. As they already acquire PCs mobiles, and other devices including Internet access....

Why not give everyone a license extension, along with scrapping DAB? At least putting things on the road to recovery, without digging a deeper hole? And, maybe a discount coupon for DAB listeners to buy an Internet radio?

MB said...

The BBC is not closing two of its digital stations, only Asian Network faces the chop and even that isn't confirmed.

As for commercial radio "baling out" of DAB I guess you must have missed the launch of Smooth, Absolute 80s & Absolute Radio Extra on the national multiplex.There is currently no spare capacity on Digital One.

The loss of "Passion For the Planet" (no I've never heard of it either) is hardly a great loss for the platform.

Terry Purvis said...

Excellent article Grant. This continual re-writing of the situation by OFCOM needs to be exposed for the farce it is.

As far as out of touch the US is on this and many other things here's an appreciation from David Van Dyke, President and CEO of Bridge Ratings to Jennifer Lane about "about some differences in listening patterns to Internet radio between UK and US listeners".

Trouble is he's serious.