PREPARE for television as you have never seen it before. This week, Scotland leads the way in a TV revolution that heralds not just better-quality images but, eventually, better-made programmes.
Forget the game shows and tacky sit-coms and think instead of mini-series that look like they belong on the big screen. Say farewell to Terry and June, and hello to Lost.
At the heart of the change is the switchover of the UK's terrestrial TV signals from analogue to digital. There was a small-scale switchover in Cumbria last year. But the digital revolution is happening on a major scale first in the Borders TV region, taking in about 50,000 homes, with other parts of the country following in stages until 2012.
Things get moving tomorrow when the Selkirk transmitter has its BBC2 analogue signal switched off. The remaining four terrestrial analogue channels (BBC1, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) will cease two weeks later. From then on, anybody in the Borders who has not upgraded their TV to receive the new digital signals will see nothing but a blank screen.
The changes require viewers to obtain a Freeview box, to plug into their TV to receive the new digital signals, or sign up for Sky or Freesat digital satellite options. Alternatively, they can purchase a new TV fitted with a digital receiver.
A government survey found that 99 per cent of Borders residents were aware of the changes, and 92 per cent understood them.
This was supported by a Scotsman straw poll of residents, which unearthed a series of grumbles about the cost of converting TVs to receive digital signals (for those not entitled to subsidised or free assistance) but a healthy number well prepared for the new era.
Michael Moore, the local Liberal Democrat MP, is determined to ensure that his constituents are "pioneers" rather than "guinea pigs from whose poor experiences others learn".
There have been fears that thousands of pensioners, either because they don't understand how to fit a digital receiver or are too proud to ask for help, could be excluded from the technological revolution. But the survey results seem to indicate that this is not the case. Then there is the wider grievance that almost half of Borders residents will be able to access only 19 of the 48 Freeview channels that will become available without charge.
They will qualify only for what Mr Moore dubs "Freeview lite" and will miss out on commercial channels such as FilmFour, Dave, various shopping channels and Setanta's subscription sports coverage.
What really excites experts about the switchover, though, is the expansion of high definition TV (HDTV). Some homes already receive it through satellite, but experts say the roll-out of digital will lead to a step-change in the way TV programmes are made.
Iain Logie Baird, the grandson of John Logie Baird, the Scot who was the first person to demonstrate a working TV, said this provides such a step-up in quality that small-screen actors may soon become as well-known as their cinema counterparts.
HDTV will be available on the various satellite options, such as Freesat, for which a one-off charge of around 150 is levied (rather than Sky's ongoing monthly subscription). Mr Baird, the curator of TV at the National Media Museum in Bradford, says that a HDTV package can be bought for as little as 250.
The picture quality is such that every flaw will be all too visible, from dreary background sets and poorly applied make-up to even the use of body-doubles and stuntmen. It also opens up countless opportunities for interactive TV and direct audience feedback.
"The picture quality is going to be much more conducive to a programme that changes action," Mr Baird told The Scotsman. "It will become much more like film. There's going to be an unprecedented change in TV images. There won't be as many sit-coms or soap operas or game shows."
Mr Baird, who will be in Selkirk today to promote the changeover, said the increased choice provided by digital would change viewing habits. "It's making people less of a consumer of TV and more like their own producer. They can choose – and deselect – content. It's improving individual choice but, at the same time, because the industry is fragmenting, it's meaning that some of the programme forms are becoming a little bit safer."
What would his grandfather have made of the switchover? "He disliked the monopoly that existed in his time," Mr Baird said. "In his time there was only the BBC. There were no commercial channels. He was really focused mostly on technological stuff and the TV image than on content – he was trying to get high definition going for the postwar period."
South-west Scotland will be the next to follow the Borders, with its analogue signal being switched off from next June . The STV North region will be converted in 2010, as will STV Central, with this region taking until 2011 to complete. The entire UK should be digital by 2012. The aim is to free up a chunk of the spectrum to create space for ultra-fast broadband and TV on mobile phones.
But there remain concerns that the switchover will add to concerns that rural Britain is being treated in a second-class manner to the nation's towns and cities.
Already struggling to save banks and post offices, many rural residents will be unlikely to receive all 48 Freeview channels. The UK government advises them to pay for satellite reception instead, sidestepping complaints that 800 million of public money is funding a switchover that does not treat viewers equally.
The problem is caused by the area's topography and the need to bounce the signal from the Selkirk transmitter via 11 relay stations, which do not contain the technology to transmit many of the commercial channels available in the full Freeview package.
Mr Moore said: "We seem to be establishing a principle which says that broadcasting developments are, in the main, for cities and the large conurbations, and if you happen to live out in the country you have got to accept second best. I don't see why we should."
The Department of Culture said that 98.5 per cent of viewers would be able to access almost 20 channels after the switchover.
A spokeswoman said it was up to commercial TV stations to ensure that their programmes could be received from remote relay stations.
Making the switch
ORGANISERS of the digital switchover are confident the vast majority of viewers will be barely inconvenienced by the changes. Nine in ten homes in the Borders already have digital TV, either through a set-top box such as Freeview (which is now built into modern TV sets) or via satellite or cable services.
Community organisations such as The Bridge, in Galashiels, have been working to ensure as many people as possible are informed of the switchover. "Our only concern is that there is a little old lady living in the valley somewhere who has not been reached," Morag Walker, its executive officer, said.
Professor Fenton Robb, from Eyemouth, complained the use of Sky as the "default" provider of digital equipment to who can receive subsidised help had created "very strong pressure" for people to sign up for a Sky subscription.
He said: "The fundamental problem is the public is being required to pay money towards the conversion of the sets from analogue to digital or Sky in order to free-up frequencies to be used by private companies under licences provided by the government. It seems to be a bit of a rip-off."
The main problem will be in homes with more than one TV set. From 20 November, the portable in the kitchen or bedroom will not work unless it can receive a digital signal.
Binniemyre, a Galashiels B&B, has bought 17 new TVs to prepare for the switchover. Another, Island House, is having to spend 300 on eight new digiboxes.
Some viewers may be eligble for assistance from the government to convert their TV.
Around two-thirds of the 17,000 eligible viewers in the Scottish Borders mailed by the Help Scheme have responded, with 2,508 opting for help.
Call 0800 40 85 901 or through visit www.helpscheme.co.uk for more information.