The challenges of the early days of the digital TV revolution – part one of a story of a transformation

Today (31st March 2010) Wales will become the first part of the UK to complete its television signal digital switchover. 6 years ago, as MD of Sony Manufacturing, we embarked on the journey towards this point. With government, broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers and customers all stakeholders in this technological revolution, I’d like to be candid and share with you the not insubstantial challenges that were being faced, and look at the strategy and processes put in place to effect a transformation to the situation.

Back in the early 2000s, digital and analogue signals had started to be broadcast in parallel from the previously analogue-only transmitters. The UK Government was giving digital broadcasting its full support, seeing it as a critical transition for the county’s infrastructure. The early adopters amongst the customer base, about 5% of the households in the UK by this stage, were viewing the new signal on first generation dual purpose digital / analogue combination TVs. Retailers – larger, and high street independents alike – were faced with a new technology representing the greatest change to televisions since the first analogue sets had gone on sale in the 1950s. Historically they had always been the face of customer service, education, and after sales service for customers buying televisions, and had been accomplished in this respect, supporting and advising on analogue televisions that had changed only slowly over the years.

In contrast to the analogue sets featuring resistors and transistors, digital sets were supported and powered not by hardware parts such as these, but by software. This was a completely different technology to what the retailers understood. There was a gulf in their training, and knowledge of the new product, exacerbated by the low standardisation and compatibility across the different set manufacturers, and ultimately the customers suffered. These early adopters, who, by their very nature, were more technologically minded than most, were being underwhelmed not only by the lack of support, how-to-use and repair services from the retailers (who continued to insist on being the customer interface), but by the broadcast signal standards. The broadcasters were facing the challenge of transmitting both signal types from the same transmitter, from which the majority of households were picking up the analogue signal. It was important not to degrade this signal, and so the digital signal was transmitter at lower power, which could ultimately result in a sudden shut down of signal to the digital receiver in the combi sets. The customers were understandably impatient and frustrated: many were returning their sets to the retailers believing them (in fact wrongly) to be faulty. The retailers in turn, not equipped with the knowledge or suitable diagnostic equipment, were shipping the sets back to the manufacturers.

This was a high risk scenario. There was a real danger that the new digital technology would be rejected. This loop had to be broken, and a transformation of the situation was needed.

Perhaps you too had an involvement in these industries at this time. How did you respond to this scenario? I would welcome your comments. I will share with you my response from my Sony standpoint in due course.

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