The fire at the Bilsdale transmitter has led to the most serious disruption to terrestrial television for half a century. A main transmitter covering a substantial chunk of North Yorkshire and the North East of England is off air indefinitely.
The nearest comparison is the collapse of the Emley Moor mast in 1969 which knocked Yorkshire Television and BBC Two off the air.
Many articles suggest YTV was off for 28 days but BBC Two was back on from a temporary mast more quickly. Of course, BBC One was unaffected.
The fire at Bilsdale could unwittingly provide a feasibility study into just how important terrestrial TV remains.
Of course, a significant proportion of homes in the area will have satellite on their main set. However, portables and other secondary sets still use Freeview.
The BBC has been telling viewers how they can watch online but, interestingly, isn’t saying anything which might encourage people to get a satellite dish as a quick response. A new dish installation could take a few days to arrange and complete.
Imagine if Bilsdale remains off air for significantly longer – especially at a time like the present where some people may still be at home more than usual despite the easing of Covid restrictions.
If satellite and online were to provide an adequate service between them, it might be possible to start constructing an argument that the terrestrial transmitter network is just a legacy.
If the argument is that such a network is needed in case of a national emergency then this case could be seriously undermined. The role of broadcasting has been crucial over the past 17 months of crisis.
But one counter-argument could trump anything which suggests the loss of terrestrial TV is manageable. It would seem reasonable to assume some elderly and vulnerable people are likely to only have access to Freeview. The loss of television for a prolonged period might be hard for them at the best of times.
Ultimately any Freeview switch-off would take years. It could only happen if the point came when few people actually used the service – just as analogue switch-off would have been unthinkable if digital terrestrial had remained a niche service.
However the current emergency will give a real sense of just how important Freeview does or does not remain in practice.
Will significant numbers lose out? Or will people simply go online or install satellite if the disruption continues for long?
The situation is dreadful but it offers the kind of feasibility study which would otherwise be impossible.
PICTURED: fire at the Bilsdale transmitter site on 10th August 2021. COPYRIGHT: Ron Needham.