LIVE ISSUE/DIGITAL TERRESTRIAL TV: Do we really need more of what we have already? - Feelings are still running high over BDB’s franchise win, Anna Griffiths writes

The decision to award the franchise for next year’s launch of digital terrestrial television to British Digital Broadcasting (Campaign, last week) begged the question: ’Did the best bid win?’

The decision to award the franchise for next year’s launch of

digital terrestrial television to British Digital Broadcasting

(Campaign, last week) begged the question: ’Did the best bid win?’



The BDB chairman, Michael Green, was so miffed with press coverage

calling his bid ’second rate’ that he cancelled an interview with the

Media Guardian in protest. But Green wasn’t helped in his cause by the

adjudicator. In its explanation of why the franchise was given to BDB,

and not to the Digital Television Network, the Independent Television

Commission admitted that it was ’on balance more attracted by the

innovative proposals’ put forward by DTN. Oftel, the ITC’s rival in the

battle to become the official regulator of a converged telecoms and

broadcast sector, criticised the decision. DTN is considering an appeal.

However, the ITC maintains, the financial weight of the Granada-Carlton

alliance affords greater confidence in its ability to sustain the

services.



What’s more, BDB’s core programming - BSkyB’s movies and its live sport

- have been driving subscriptions to satellite TV and, it is hoped, will

do the same for digital terrestrial TV. The target will be the eight

million people who, according to BDB research, will never buy a

satellite dish.



Digital terrestrial TV will be of little interest to the 25 per cent of

the population who already subscribe to cable or satellite. Yet, when

the ITC requested bids for the digital terrestrial platform - which will

provide 30 new channels for viewers willing to invest pounds 200 in a

set-top box and pay a subscription charge - it emphasised that the

submissions would be judged on how they would extend choice. As many of

the BDB’s proposed services are already available in one form or

another, how does the ITC justify its decision?



’It’s still broadening the range of programming available to viewers and

supplying what they want,’ a representative of the ITC argues. ’It’s

something new for 75 per cent of the population who don’t have access to

that programming.’



While DTN was unwilling to talk about being turned down, there are many

who agree with the reasoning that the ’new but familiar’ BDB is the more

likely to build subscription numbers quickly.



DTN’s bid emphasised its interactive content with information and

transactional services, alongside travel, wildlife, music, movie and

cartoon channels and eight services from the BBC/Flextech consortium.

But DTN’s senior partner, CableTel - signposted in the bid as ’the UK’s

most successful cable company’ - is not known to most viewers. Despite

the BBC’s presence, most of DTN’s services would have been a new

experience for many.



Nigel Sheldon, the head of J. Walter Thompson’s new-media unit, Thompson

Interactive, says: ’Advertisers will welcome niche interactive services,

but there has to be an incentive to get viewers to pay for the set-top

box. The only way digital terrestrial TV will be compelling for

consumers in the short term is (BDB’s) sport and movies content.’



A media agency head counters: ’The best bid didn’t win in terms of the

use of digital technology, and the bid that did win didn’t have an

interesting selection of programmes. How many people want more of what

they already have?’



JWT estimates that by the end of next year 500,000 UK homes will have

access to digital TV, with two-thirds coming from cable and satellite

homes, and the remainder digital terrestrial TV. By 2000, 3.6 million

homes will have access.



However small the numbers look, the implications for advertisers can’t

be ignored. Sheldon says: ’Agencies and advertisers must have the right

planning tools for this fragmented environment.’



But, while planning will continue to rise in importance, good

old-fashioned media muscle will be no less critical as advertisers and

their media buyers face up to the combined force of two of ITV’s biggest

players when it comes to negotiating airtime deals with BDB.



The presence of Carlton and Granada - backed by the content providers,

BSkyB and the BBC - may have reassured the ITC, but some media buyers

are wary. Nick Theakstone, TV buying director at the Media Centre, says:

’It is worrying that in terms of sales within ITV, major competitors are

getting together in this way.’



The sales houses, Carlton and the Granada-owned Laser Sales, are coy

about their sales plans. However, it would make sense for them to market

and sell digital terrestrial TV together if they want to build

revenue.



While they cannot make a deal with analogue conditional on a deal with

digital, sales houses are like any other business in that, in the words

of one leading ITV figure, ’we look after those customers who look after

us’.



Another concern for agencies and viewers, is the potential drain on

Carlton and Granada’s resources that BDB could represent, with the pair

committed to putting pounds 300 million into BDB over five years. David

Cuff, head of broadcast at Initiative Media, says: ’They are in the

business of making programmes, but the core of the product is audience

and my concern is that they are diverting talent and money away from

mass audiences into micro audiences.’



A Carlton spokesman responds: ’There’s been so much bull about all this.

We believe free-to-air ITV has a fantastic future. The programme budget

goes up every year and I would be surprised if it didn’t continue to

rise.’



Perspective, page 13



BDB’S BASIC CHANNELS

Carlton Select Classic British drama, special events including music and

live football, plus programmes from Carlton Food Network

Granada Plus British TV classics from Granada, including Coronation

Street

Horizons BBC’s nature, science, history and technology programming with

children’s service in the morning on a new channel

Sky 1 Family entertainment including comedy, drama and documentaries

Carlton Films Films and made-for-TV movies

Granada Good Life Lifestyle channel

Showcase and Style Best of BBC 1 and BBC 2 with food and fashion

programming

Public Eye Dramas, films and documentaries on theme of law and order,

plus Sky

News in the mornings

Granada TV Shopping.

Carlton Entertainment Children’s drama, comedy and talk programmes.

Granada Sports Club Football and a night-time music service

One TV TV version of Radio 1

Three premium channels Sky Movies, the Movie Channel, Sky Sports

Source: British Digital Broadcasting



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