Thursday, 8 April 2010

Choice? It's just an illusion . . .

Apologies for the delay in posting. This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on March 18.

The subject of this area's switchover to digital TV has been well-commented upon. The reason the 'big switchover' has generated so much news print – and indeed air time – is that we will all be affected by it and we will all, apparently, benefit. We are set to get better TV reception and more channel choice, they say.

Aaahh, choice.

That five letter word which has become the golden ticket that every political candidate of every party has to offer the electorate. Choice is the new mantra – the concept that we, as citizens, can pick what we want, when we want it and where we want it when it comes to the services that are important to us.

But, I'm afraid, I increasingly think choice is just an illusion.

We are told, for example, that we can now choose which schools our children attend or which doctor we can have to treat us and at which hospital. That's great then – I think I'll send my son to Eton and the next time I have a major ailment, I will ask for the leading doctor in the field nationwide to treat me.

But, of course, that won't happen.

Choice is there in the most part as a principle rather than a reality. Even in an area such as Bath and north east Somerset, where most parents get their first choice of school, it is still mainly down to where they live, whether there are siblings already at a school or even what faith they are that decides their "free choice"
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The other illusion about choice is that more is better. But is that really the case?

For example, I discovered at an early age that there was one tin of beans which I preferred above all others (I don't want to give free advertising but let's just say there are 57 varieties of this brand). If I go into a supermarket and I'm now offered 20 different brands at similar prices, I will still go for this one – the rest are irrelevant. You choose if you want to, I'll stick with Heinz (damn, I mentioned it).

Which brings me back to the 'digital' choice – because it's exactly the same. I was an early subscriber to Sky because of my love of sport and so I can now choose at home hundreds of channels even though I don't have the 'full' package. And yet the truth is television (like baked beans) is about quality, not quantity, and so I still spend the vast majority of my TV-watching time looking mainly at the same channels I used to watch in the days when there was no remote control and if you wanted to flick between the three channels on offer, you had to get up off your sofa to do so.

So for all those of you who are about to discover the 'joys' of a variety of new channels, I hate to dampen your enthusiasm but I wouldn't get too excited.

The choice may be greater but when your new Freeview menu includes BBC Parliament, Rabbit Chat & Date or price-bid TV you may start to agree with my idea that less can actually be more.

Tin of beans anyone?