back to article Who killed ITV Digital? Rupert Murdoch - but not the way you think

After 25 years of watching the Murdoch TV empire unfold, the battle plan to beat him should be fairly obvious. You buy the best content - the most popular sport and movies - and raise lots of capital, and make watching it easy. Then you dig in for a very long fight. In other words, this is the entertainment-business-as-usual. …


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  1. maccy
    Thumb Down

    missing the point

    "Even if counterfeit smart cards hadn't existed, it wouldn't have made any difference"

    Maybe so, but that misses the point that if Sky colluded with a code-breaking and piracy operation against one of its competitors, even one as incompetent as ONdigital, then what they did was completely illegal.

    1. MetaDude

      Re: missing the point

      Also, if they weren't involved in hacking of their competitors there must be a massive conspiracy against them in order to have separate lawsuits in France, Italy and Australia all claiming pretty much the same thing.

      How much smoke can you have without fire?

    2. captain veg

      Straw man

      Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen the Panorama episode in question.

      I have read the Grauniad piece, and its thrust is that if Murdoch's crew did this, then they are not fit and proper persons to take over a majority stake in BSkyB. Whether or not it was instrumental in crushing a competitor is immaterial to this point. It is a straw man argument.

      It is worth re-stating that Sky started out as a pirate broadcaster, only buying legitimacy with the BSB purchase after having sunk a fortune in crushing that player. They've plenty of form.


  2. Eponymous Coward

    Doesn't matter...

    ...any stick to beat the Murdoch empire is worth trying in my view.

  3. Arnold Lieberman

    The BBC and a Grauniad Journo not entirely impartial

    Who'd a thunk it!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The BBC and a Grauniad Journo not entirely impartial

      For your information, these allegations have been going around (and have been entirely plausible) for a very long time, certainly since before the recent trend to expose the true facts about the Murdoch business empire.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The BBC and a Grauniad Journo not entirely impartial

      Also, Andrew Orlowski criticises the BBC, who'd o think it.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The BBC and a Grauniad Journo not entirely impartial

        Andrew Orlowski mentions "the middle classes" who'd of thunk it.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't forget...

    ... the other problem with ONDigital: it jammed far too many channels onto far too few multiplexers. That wasn't a reception problem - it was a problem of poor or cheapskate management at the server end, and it's unlikely most viewers even realised that. Watching football on ONDigital for example, it looked like they were playing on plasticine.

    And even in death, ONDigital's rotting corpse still managed to do something stupid - we (along with rather a lot of other people) received a pompous, petulant letter from a bunch of lawyers, stating that THEY were the executors of ONDigital, that we had one of THEIR boxes, that it was THEIR property, and that if we didn't give it back they would take us to court.

    They hadn't managed to work out that it was actually cheaper to throw the boxes away than it would be to collect them. We didn't bother to tell them where to go. We've still got the box, and it is running Freeview in the spare room.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't forget...

      Yeah thanks for that Rupert....

      If there is any credible proof to these claims then NDS or News International should be sued and pursued to the full extent of the law

    2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: Don't forget...

      Spot on about the multiplexers, the crowning irony being Andrew's point that they didn't have any content worth watching on the extra channels.

      I expect most of the 1.3 million "subscribers" just used the box as a way to get the free digital channels. These are the same people who still haven't signed up with Sky because they've now got FreeView built into their telly and in their opinion there's still bog-all worth watching that isn't on the free channels.

    3. Matthew 3

      Re: Don't forget...

      Yes, I got one of those. I had bought a TV with a built-in OnDigital decoder but they didn't bother tailoring the letters for people without separate receivers. I wrote back saying something like 'see you in court, pal' and never heard another peep.

      On the plus side though, the aerial they fitted for free is still doing sterling service.

      1. MJI Silver badge

        Re: The letter

        I never got one of those - if I had I would have sent a solicitor at them.

        It was MY TV bought outright

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't forget...

      The ONDigital boxes weren't that good. Mine would jump any time a light switch was flicked or a car went past (living room at the back of a first floor flat with TV at the far wall)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Don't forget...

        I also have an OnDigital box providing Freeview in the computer room (or at least it will until the UTV region bothers to switch off analogue and it is not compatible with Freeview 2.0)

        Picture quality is alright for RF (we live on top of a hill facing the main transmitter), but the box is slow (it is a Pace box similar to the NTL:/Virgin Media boxes (which were made even slower by NTL:/Virgin Medias bloated EPG)).

        Re: Satellite snobbery - it did exist. I noticed it years ago from snide remarks one of the teachers made. Maybe that is why Sky marketed their smaller digital dish as a Minidish, and designed it with a black colour with holes through it to make it less conspicuous?

      2. This Side Up

        Re: Don't forget...

        "The ONDigital boxes weren't that good. "

        I still have a Philips ONdigital box which I bought with ITV stickers on it after ITV digital went titsup. It's still working well and is a lot better than some of the cheap jobs I've bought since. In particular I can change the format using the remote control, without having to go through setup menus, so I don't have to put up with Channel 4 forcing me to watch in low height slittyvision.

    5. Mike Dimmick

      New box required at switchover

      onDigital boxes were built down to a price, so they only have enough memory in the front-end digital signal processor to decode the 2K mode originally used by onDigital and Freeview. At switchover, transmissions change over to the 8K mode - this leaves a 'symbol' on-air for four times as long, meaning that it can cope with echoes, or repeater transmitters, four times further away, for the same capacity. The onDigital boxes, and a number of contemporary IDTVs and early Freeview boxes, will just stop working. The 8K mode was always in the DVB-T specification, the BBC wanted to use it for national Single Frequency Networks like DAB, it was just left out of cheap boxes.

      There's an incomplete list of boxes with this problem at (PDF). There's also another list of boxes that can't cope with a large Network Information Table, which spans more than one MPEG-2 Transport Stream packet: .

      If you're replacing it, get a Freeview HD box even if the TV isn't HD. There's a good chance that there will be a second switchover within 10 years, to the newer DVB-T2 standard that's already being used for HD services, due to the pressure on UHF spectrum from the mobile phone networks.

      Freeview now crams twice as many services into each multiplex as onDigital had - but that's due to 10 years of improved MPEG-2 compression technology. Some would argue that football on ITV4 still has the plasticine-pitch problem.

      1. Danny 14 Silver badge

        Re: New box required at switchover

        I think I paid £10 for my freeview box from asda a few years ago. When it stops working it'll have done me proud.

    6. Wilseus

      We've still got the box, and it is running Freeview in the spare room.

      Not for much longer it isn't, as the old OnDigital boxes don't support the newer 8K multiplexes they are moving to after the digital switchover!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course they "forgot" the context.

    Look ma, it's them hackurs again! And teh intarwebz! Look what they done now!

    And then there's this spoil-sport Andrew, bringing sense to a good sensation. Sheesh.

  6. Phil Riley

    On Digital's lack of quality

    At the time I had both OnDigitial and Sky; OnDigitial's picture quality was noticeably inferior to Sky's (and in fact Freeview still is to this day).

    I mostly had the OnDigital box for time shifting - hooked up to a Video Recorder, it was decent enough for that.

    Oh and I know quite a few people even to this day who state the "I hate Murdoch" argument.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: On Digital's lack of quality

      Speaking of lack of quality, have you noticed the drop in quality of the regular Sky Channels especially the sport since they have been trying to ram the £10.50 a month extra HD channels down your throat?

  7. John Styles

    The thing that impresses me is the degree to which more or less the same people managed to make the same mistakes with OnDigital that they made with BSB, following pretty much the same play-book.

  8. micheal

    Similar to BSB

    "no one wants to watch VHS quality TV, they'll pay the premium for our superior services", same as sony thought joe public wanted to pay for betamax over poor quality vhs

    1. Robert E A Harvey

      Re: Similar to BSB

      And yet, and yet, people are now trying to sell us HD tellies to watch the same old carp on.

    2. This Side Up

      Re: Similar to BSB

      '"no one wants to watch VHS quality TV, they'll pay the premium for our superior services", same as sony thought joe public wanted to pay for betamax over poor quality vhs'

      Not at all similar. Most people rented VCRs in those days, and JVC had got the rental market stitched up (mainly through a tie-up with Radio Rentals). This in tuirn resulted in a lot of content being available in VHS only. But you're right in that Joe Public doesn't give a shit about quality.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    panorama exaggerations potentially but...

    Panorama footage during the show makes it look like you needed microscopes to examine the card to extract relevant ciphers. Thing is AFAIK and IANAH (hihi) the cypher involved isn't very long. If memory serves these were brute forced (ie keys just rotated until a signal in the stream was detected). Also in one of the emails purporting to be from NDS to THOIC, it actually states the source of one of the codes was from Usenet, yet presenter just omits this 'snippet' of information.

    Thus I think panorama has seriously overstated the capability needed to crack those cards and at best what NDS involvement may be down to some low-level misguided employee rather than a conspiracy, and that employee was just passing info around gleamed from usenet.

    Also - those codes - most of them used to be coming from Turkey and there have been various designs of boxes that don't' need the card as the relevant codes can be inputted directly without the card though I don't know what has been available in uk pubs as I don't really frequent them!!.

    I hate to say all this as I loathe murdoch for the drivel he tries to pass off as news and his ability to misguide masses for his own personal gain against his own reading publics own interest, but I think the BBC is just latching on the bandwagon of murdoch hatred in this instance (which is basically just making up drivel). This will only end badly. If Murdoch is taken down by drivel the problem of drivel remains...

    1. Vic

      Re: panorama exaggerations potentially but...

      Disclosure: I used to work for C+T

      > If memory serves these were brute forced

      All the evidence is long-buried these days, but it was certainly the belief within C+T that the silicon had been reverse-engineered to break the encryption. And there wren't too many companies capable of that, let alone minded to do so...

      > it actually states the source of one of the codes was from Usenet,

      Of course. If $company had broken into a competitor's CA system, it wouldn't release such information on its own website. Usenet would be the delivery channel...

      > I think panorama has seriously overstated the capability needed to crack those cards

      I believe you are wrong. I cannot prove it.


    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: panorama exaggerations potentially but...

      @ac 10:01 GMT

      Its been a long time since i read any details so some of this may be wrong.

      The extracting of keys with software like MKfind from genuine SECA cards and their being posted to Usenet by anyone was the end result, this was only possible because the ROM of the seca card had been well studied and bugs had been found.

      The allegation is that NDS dumped the rom of a seca card and later posted this file to which allowed people to disassemble it and look for implementation bugs, this of course happened and bugs found which i think leaked information about the key allowing you to extract up to 5 bytes of the key, reducing the key-space enough that you could brute-force the rest.

      Since SECA cards were used all over the world and not just the uk various tools and card emulating firmware for pic and atmel micro chips got written and at some point some of this was adapted to work with ondigital.

      This of course got discussed in many a pub and internet forum, the second part of the allegation is that one of these forums was paid for by news corp but rather than just being used as a honey-pot to gather information on hackers they went further and actively facilitated the hacking.

      The satellite receivers with inbuilt card emulation didn't appear until later, but in order to emulate a card you need not only the keys but the algorithm used on the card, whilst it may be possible to blackbox it having a dump of the rom to study would certainly be the best way work it out.

  10. dogged

    According to this, it does matter. Not so much to ONDigital but certainly regarding the sheer level of dirt NDS were getting up to back then.

  11. John King 1

    Straw clutching

    As much as I loathe Murdock and refuse to give a single penny to Sky* I agree that the Panorama doc seemed like a lot of straw clutching. But if the longshot is that we now have Freeview as a result of all this then it may have worked out for the best for most UK TV consumers.

    *I've still never understood why Sky is such a success though. You pay £500 a year for it's sports and movies and yet it still shows adverts. You are being done at both ends.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Straw clutching

      There's no adverts actually during the sport, and there's no adverts in the movies. I agree that the movies are a rip off, and sport is only really worth it is you're a big footie fan who doesn't like the pub, but there's still plenty of value in their cheapest packages.

    2. Random Handle

      Re: Straw clutching

      >I've still never understood why Sky is such a success though.

      .....because people like live sports, new films and slick shows from HBO and you won't be able to watch the latter on Freeview for at least another couple of years.

      >But if the longshot is that we now have Freeview as a result of all this then it may have worked out for the best for most UK TV consumers.

      Freeview is the bare minimum for folk who don't watch a lot of TV - vast numbers were quite happy with 5 analogue channels, its probably perfect for them - assuming they can receive it.

      >You pay £500 a year for it's sports and movies and yet it still shows adverts

      Can't say I notice, commercial breaks are removed from Anytime and Anytime+ and at least half the broadcast stuff I watch is recorded - for eveything else there's live pause....and while I pay around that for 2 HD boxes, I don't think most people do.

      1. Wild Bill

        Re: Straw clutching

        I just steal it all off the internet

    3. Francis Fish
      Thumb Up

      Re: Straw clutching

      Yeah - done at both ends indeed - I can't watch Channel 1 on Freeview - seems about 5 mins of content an hour. The idea of paying for it, quite frankly, turns me right off.

      I read somewhere that they don't make that much from ads anyway - could show a lot less of them, but then of course you'd need more than 10 mins of content per 20 broadcast time, wouldn't you?

  12. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge


    I'm no fan of the Murdoch empire but the Panorama programme seemed little more than jumping on the witch hunt bandwagon.

    ONdigital would have folded regardless of having paying or non-paying customers. They got caught up in a ridiculous bidding war with Sky to get football rights to attract an audience which they failed to get. ONdigital and the FA ultimately screwed themselves in the process.

    Murdoch may have manoeuvred ONdigital into facilitating their own downfall but that's just smart business practice. Sky saw ONdigital desperate to win the football rights and escalated the bidding until ONdigital were doomed, then walked away, handed the rope to ONdigital with which to hang themselves. That battle deliberately lost, and the war won.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Heretic!

      Problem for Ni is that collaboratory evidence has arisen (the Financial Review in Australia ) of the same practices having been used in Australia, italy and other country's.

    2. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: Heretic!


      The proof of guilt may well be out there, but it wasn't in Panorama.

      For people who are convinced RM is a diabolical combination of Montgomery Burns and Goldfinger, no proof is necessary, though. He's guilty of anything imaginable - to the gallows!

    3. Wibble

      Re: Heretic!

      OnDigital's content was so wide of the mark, aimed straight at the mass-market blandness that ITV has always hit (OK, with a few drama exceptions). Add to that phootbawl, limited channel choice *and* their expectation that the punters would pay for it... No surprise OnDigital failed as the Murdock proposition was far more compelling.

      I'm delighted with Freeview and the BBC's new channels. And Dave:-) I'm even more delighted that the phootbawl is only available on Sky where people of a certain kind can pay their tithe to Murdock ad-infinitum.

      I'll just pay my bargain license fee, configure the 20 or so interesting Freeview channels (i.e. delete the spam/dross channels), record then watch a few programs a week, and get on with having a life.

  13. Andy 97

    Interesting comments, decent article.

    Turning the encoder QAM up to squeeze as many channels as possible onto a mux made the picture quality and reception problematic too.

    Content is king, but if you can't watch a programme without the "puppy drowning in mud" soundtrack, would you watch?

    1. Boris Blank

      Re: Interesting comments, decent article.

      Just to be pedantic: QAM is used on cable, Freeview uses COFDM.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Interesting comments, decent article.

        Freeview does use QAM. COFDM is a different technology (but also part of the way DTT is transmitted).

        Some pre-switchover muxes use 16-QAM, all SD muxes post switchover use 64-QAM and the HD mux uses 256 QAM

      2. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Interesting comments, decent article.

        RE "Just to be pedantic: QAM is used on cable, Freeview uses COFDM.

        Each Carrier on COFDM uses QPSK, QAM16, QAM64 etc. OnDigital did use less robust QAM to fit more channels. LTE, WiMax and Flash Mobile systems use from QPSK to QAM256 on each carrier on their COFDM system. OFDM/OFDMA/COFDM can use from 30 to about 6700 or more carriers per channel or Multiplex. Cable uses a single carrier for each channel

        Technically COFDM, OFDM and OFDMA are really encoding techniques. They all use QPSK or QAM for the carrier modulation.

        Satellite OTH uses QPSK or APSK.

        1. error handler

          Re: Interesting comments, decent article.

          If you'd finished that post with "HTH" it would have been sublime.

    2. Anonymous Coward 101

      Re: Interesting comments, decent article.

      "Content is king, but if you can't watch a programme without the "puppy drowning in mud" soundtrack, would you watch?"

      I remember that. When my mum phoned onDigital to ask how to fix it, she was told to switch the digibox off for a while to reduce 'static electricity'!

  14. MJI Silver badge

    I had Ondigital for a while

    Actually the free to air digital terrestrial channels were of excellent quality, from what I saw better than digital satellite. Pay channels were pretty variable.

    There was a difference in receiver quality as well at the time.

    I ended up on a £3 per month deal for a year, then a bit more until they went bump.

    Anyway it started for me with a Sony IDTV one of the first, outstanding picture quality, but lots of unusable channels - until the CAM offer came out, no CAM so they lent me a Nokia Mediamaster box with lop sided remote control, definately a step down from the Sony TV, anyway connected it to a Sanyo Beta VCR I could record digital TV. However we ended up watching 2 channels a lot and the others a bit. Discovery Wings and Carlton Food Network.

    Eventually the OnCAM arrived and a man from South Wales updated the TV to handle it. Now I got into the recording issue, swapping cards was painfull CAM in back of TV.

    All through this period there was lots of information about hacking the cards - I will admit I wanted to but not for piracy issues, I wanted one for TV and one for Ondodgy box.

    Anyway there were a lot of people getting Ondigital for free, but many many more who opened up their basic subscription to a full subscription, this possibly hurt more than they expected, people rather than buy a sport subscription had the basic one and opened their genuine cards to a full one. It was all over the digital TV groups and links were everywhere.

    Near going bump time Ondigital wanted their box back but collapsed just before they sent for it. It didn't last long before failing and I ended up getting a Pace Twin.

    Ondigital was a good go but was badly run, good channels dropped (so I cancelled - literally within days of shut down).

  15. Pat 11


    It was the footy what done it, but the seeds were sewn years earlier. Sky got the monopoly on the Premiere League with the support of Alan Sugar, then chairman of Tottenham, and coincidentally, manufacturer of Sky boxes. As long as Murdoch had a stanglehold on the footy, no competing pay tv operation would succeed. The reason sattelite dishes are held to be a symbol of chavdom is their association with england flags hanging next to them on council estates. Without the footy, Sky would be history, and without the footy, ITV Digital are history.

    1. Robert E A Harvey

      Re: Footy

      What you say is undoubtedly correct.

      I am, however, disturbed at the thought that my entertainment choices are being made for me by the sort of dribbling insouciants I see in pubs watching TV and leaning very slightly forwards while they do so.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Footy

      Very true. The irony is, of course, that Murdoch originally only got the licence to broadcast to Luxembourg. Irony, inasmuch as it has been fighting tooth-and-claw to stop people wanting football matches broadcast say to Albania or Greece but whose signals are still visible in the UK. With the monopoly on the premier league, existing customer and conditional access Sky was always able to outbid the competition and sell ads on top.

      The popular myth is that satellite dishes were owned by good-for-nothing, layabout scuffers on housing estates where they were more visible because of the density. Of course, that accounts for a large part of the traditional footballing public and now increasingly forced to watch via satellite due to the increase in ticket prices, but there were always upper middle class and up prepared to pay to watch footy but also tennis, gold and formula 1. Sky continues to outbid terrestrial competition if ever something becomes popular and Parliament hasn't banned conditional access.

      Movies have always been a bit of an add-on. Quality series from HBO and co. is more important now that ITV can no longer afford to compete. Originally commissioned programming apart from the sport which is beautifully produced is still largely shit.


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