Digital television is clearly such a mind-blowing concept -
hundreds of TV channels, widescreen formats and interactive services -
that it’s sent some executives loopy.
First, the BBC announces it is to spend millions of pounds of licence
payers’ money to sign up as part of BSkyB’s digital package. Of course,
the money will be spent leasing space on the digital satellite and on
the actual costs of broadcasting. Fair enough.
But the BBC also looks set to top up the Sky coffers by paying for Sky’s
conditional access and customer management system.
Now, as a licence payer, I have a few problems with this. Unlike digital
cable, digital satellite does not have to carry free-to-air services
such as the BBC and ITV. So the BBC has to cough up or risk a
significant proportion of the population missing out on its programmes
which it can’t afford to happen if it is to stand a chance of retaining
licence-fee income after the analogue switch-off.
Not only is this unfair on licence fee payers, who would surely rather
the money was spent on more decent programming, but it’s a further
example of Sky benefiting from its stranglehold on the gateway to
The deal will make digital satellite all the more attractive and
probably make Rupert Murdoch just that little bit richer.
All of which means that I come to Sky’s latest battle with the ITV
companies with a great deal of sympathy for good old ITV. Funnily
enough, the ITV companies don’t want to allow Sky to fill in the last
piece of its digital jigsaw by paying to have their programmes broadcast
on digital satellite.
ITV says it will be concentrating its energies on digital
All of the three big ITV groups have got their own digital terrestrial
assets, through British Digital Broadcasting and United’s S4C tie-up, as
well as through ITV2.
It would be utter madness to expect ITV to capitulate and pay Sky to
kill digital terrestrial at birth. Because that’s exactly what handing
over ITV programming to the Murdoch camp would do. For Sky’s chief
executive, Mark Booth, to describe ITV’s resistance as ’a public service
broadcaster withholding its channels for private gain’ is, at best,
misleading. But Booth knows that if viewers can get their movies, sport
and Corrie on digital satellite, why would they plump for digital
terrest-rial with its lacklustre new channels?
The truth is that digital satellite already holds many aces - top
Hollywood movies, first-class sport, prime US shows and now the BBC. But
at least digital terrestrial has the nation’s favourite ITV shows under
To expect ITV shareholders to meekly hand over their usp could threaten
the very foundations on which that usp was built. Viewers and
advertisers need a real alternative to Sky in the digital age and the
only way of ensuring that is to keep ITV’s programmes where they belong:
within the ITV and digital terrestrial fold.