Experts warning of catastrophe in digital switchover

Jeremy Austin
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Technical experts from the live entertainment and broadcasting sectors are warning that the switch from analogue to digital television later this decade has the potential to render unworkable vital equipment such as radio microphones, ear monitor systems and talkback facilities.

Describing it as one of the toughest and potentially catastrophic challenges that the entertainment industry has faced, representatives of leading technical firms in theatre, broadcasting and film have formed the British Entertainment Industry Radio Group in order to lobby Ofcom and to ensure that their concerns are heard in Whitehall. Organisations including Autograph, BBM Trantec, Orbital Sound and most recently Plasa have already signed up.

Primary among their concerns is that the reduction in frequencies available to them means that there will be more radio users vying for less space on what is called the radio frequency spectrum. Radio microphone users are likely to find themselves interrupted by bursts of broadcasts from other users such as minicab firms, for example.

BEIRG spokesman Alan March, who works for Shure Distribution UK, said the current system works well. A managed structure of frequencies means that a touring company will always be able to find a clear frequency that will not interfere with, for example, a local television broadcaster. BEIRG’s role, through the consultant it eventually employs, will be to ensure that digital switchover does not result in chaos.

“Because we have to wait months for any sort of outcome, it is like fighting a mythical beast. But, having said that, we have to do something now because the consultation is starting and we have to make our voices heard so that Ofcom is very clear about what the industry needs. If not, the spectrum will be sold off and we will have to go back to using mics on wires and in-ear monitors will disappear,” he said.

“The key to this is how do you access a clean spectrum. The next three months are absolutely critical as to how the industry is going to be operating in the future.”

The shake up to the spectrum is part of Ofcom’s Spectrum Framework Review. It is designed, among other things, to allow people to sell their frequencies on the open market. BEIRG is concerned that the Joint Frequency Management Group – appointed by government to sell temporary licences to radio mic operators and others – will sell off the frequencies it owns, meaning the theatre or broadcast industries will lose access.

BEIRG is also concerned about the financial pressures being exerted on current licence holders to sell frequencies. A piece of data transmitted digitally uses up five kilohertz of the radio spectrum, compared to the 200khz used by a radio mic. Such is the demand by industry for space to transmit digitally, one 5khz section can be sold for an estimated £5million.

Peter Roberts, from Cameron Mackintosh Limited, has represented the Society of London Theatre at BEIRG meetings. He said members of SOLT and sister organisation the Theatrical Management Association are concerned about the technical problems of sharing the reduced spectrum and also the commercial issues, should global communication corporations start to buy vast chunks for the remaining frequencies.

“It is a big problem for us because while radio mics are essential tools, there is a limit on what you can put through them and theatres won’t be able to compete with television channels, which need great wodges of spectrum,” he said.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster