NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON BBC DIGITAL - BBC prepares to shape digital television into its own image. With new licences the BBC can develop interactive TV. Alasdair Reid investigates

Talk about having it handed to you on a plate. Thursday 4 July 2002 will probably go down as a momentous day in the history of the BBC, though in the end the Independent Television Commission's decision to hand the corporation the shop-soiled digital terrestrial broadcasting licence was neither surprising nor controversial.

Sources at ITV, the BBC's only credible competitor in the application process, admitted how relieved they were that their bid had failed. ITV felt duty bound to appear willing, but to win, given its track record the first time around, would have been to pile PR disaster upon PR disaster.

But ITV shouldn't be so comfortable with the outcome. This is arguably very bad for the UK's main commercial networks, while it's of massive importance to the BBC. It's also important for Sky, which is the BBC's programming partner in this venture.

One of the BBC's most important long-term strategic goals is to retain "share of mind in a broadcasting environment of proliferating channels and increasingly fragmented niche audiences. The corporate line has always been that it was happy to evolve a platform-neutral approach to the digital world, but the truth was that the corporation risked being gradually marginalised.

The ITC decision gives it every opportunity not just to dominate DTT, but to actually shape it in its own image. And the recent kerfuffle over BBC3 shows that the BBC is more than willing to antagonise commercial rivals. Yes, the BBC says, it will steal audiences from established commercial networks - but those rivals should be alright because their remaining youth audience impacts will command a bigger premium from advertisers.

The corporation's advances in digital are even more significant when set alongside the Government's indications that it will accede to the BBC's long-term funding demands. So, in short, non-commercial considerations are now even more firmly entrenched at the heart of the British broadcasting economy.

And the BBC is absolutely determined that this digital terrestrial part two will be a huge success. Andy Duncan, the BBC marketing director, says the new platform will be backed by the biggest promotional campaign ever undertaken by the BBC.

"The exact timing is to be confirmed. There is a lot still to be done on the technology side in terms of coverage and quality reception, and on the consumer side in getting the message sharp and ready to go, but we hope to launch some time in the autumn. It's important to get out before the Christmas rush. There will be a simple message about this being a fresh start and it will be a heavyweight campaign with real cut through, he says.

There won't be a media budget as such, airtime involved will be the BBC's own radio and television inventory, but it will be a campaign with a commercial broadcasting equivalent value running to tens of millions.

David Cuff, the commercial director of Flextech Telewest, says the good thing about the decision is that it simplifies the pay-TV market. "Sky has never been known to do a deal that doesn't advance its own interests, and Sky didn't want another pay-TV platform. It's true that the other bid would have maximised out the pay-TV market, but on the other hand now we can assume that cable and satellite are the only two pay-TV platforms. The high-value pay-TV consumers remain a separate and targetable group of consumers."

But will the advent of the new service have any short-term impact on the ad market? The BBC's terrestrial services have been on a roll in recent months, and you would have to assume that when people buy into the new platform they will start watching even more BBC programming - for the simple reason that there will be a half dozen or more BBC channels on there.

Also, while the BBC is committed to interactive television, its idea of interactive is thoroughly non-commercial. It's all about enhanced TV coverage of events such as Wimbledon, with back channels giving access to different camera angles, highlights and archive material.

It doesn't help advance the now battered fortunes of interactive advertising as such.

A missed opportunity? Chris Hayward, the TV director of Zenith Media, can't say he's hugely worried, though: "In the end there was a certain inevitability about it, but this is an ideal opportunity for the BBC. It really is going to try to be a major player in all broadcast areas."

But what about interactivity? Hayward believes that BBC and Sky experiments will be to the benefit of everybody.

"Both the BBC and Sky will inevitably explore ways to make the best of this platform, but interactivity is still in its very early stages and people are still learning about it. But there is huge potential there in terms of the material the BBC has at its disposal and Sky will also be looking to exploit it too, he says.

Chris Harrison, the managing director of Spring London, agrees: "It is interesting that Sky and the BBC are the two broadcasters who have done most to demonstrate how best to make TV what we call 'sticky', though interactive programming. For instance, Sky News and Sports and BBC's Wimbledon coverage. They're the defining architects of the enhanced television experience."

Harrison adds that this doesn't impact much either way on the conventional advertising market, but he suggests advertiser-funded programming will increasingly come into the equation.

"It all depends on what marketers are going to do with TV. I think everyone has noticed that the efficacy of TV advertising isn't what it was, he concludes.

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