MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: The Beeb's digital strategy may hurt commercial rivals

It's not been a good week at the BBC. The Corporation is squirming

over reports that Gavyn Davies - who stands accused of being a Labour

crony - is to take over from Christopher Bland as chairman; the

director-general, Greg Dyke, felt it necessary to apologise publicly for

the treatment of a former US ambassador on Question Time; and the BBC's

digital plans have got commercial backs up.



On the first two counts, attacks on the BBC have been somewhat

harsh.



Davies is a sound choice for chairman - he's been a sterling deputy to

Bland, led the review that won the BBC an increased licence fee to fund

the new digital services and, as the chief economist of Goldman Sachs,

has a sound business background. And the Question Time audience raised

legitimate debate about America's aggressive foreign policy but it was

arguably too soon after the terrorist attack for such an openly hostile

stance towards the US to be aired palatably.



But when it comes to the BBC's new digital strategy, Auntie stands

guilty as accused. Last Thursday, the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell,

granted the BBC three new digital TV channels and five digital radio

stations.



Plans for BBC3 - a TV channel targeting 16- to 34-year-olds - were

kicked out because they were deemed to duplicate what is already being

offered in the commercial sector.



Fine, but it seems a little cock-eyed to concede this point when BBC1

and BBC News 24 have been getting away with exactly the same thing for

quite some time now. And the digital proposals that have been given the

green light will only serve to exacerbate the problem.



The BBC is planning two new services for children, both of which overlap

with existing commercial offerings. The first will target six- to

13-year-olds, the second the under-sixes - sectors already well served

by the likes of the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel and Fox. In the

BBC's defence, though, there is room in the children's TV market for

more homegrown kids programming that doesn't rely on wall-to-wall

cartoons.



The third digital TV channel is positioned as a sort of TV version of

Radios 3 and 4. In principle this sounds like a real attempt to broaden

the TV landscape. But with an operating budget apparently only a third

that of the radio services, can the new digital channel really be

anything other than a tokenistic ghetto for the arts?



To a greater or lesser extent, all the new TV channels will replicate

commercial offerings. But they will also free up BBC1 to be an even

greater threat to mainstream commercial channels. The Government has

promised a review of all the BBC's digital services in 2004 but the need

for BBC activities to be brought under the remit of a new Ofcom

regulator is imperative.



If that does not happen soon, the BBC could find itself responsible for

sending some commercial rivals to the wall.



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