MEDIA FORUM: Uncertainty rises from ashes of ITV Digital failure - What does ITV Digital's collapse mean for the pay-TV market? Could digital viewers shift to a new downmarket system?

Let's face facts - ITV Digital is finished as it currently exists. It's not a palatable situation and understandably everyone's scratching around for straws to cling to. In particular, it has been touching to watch BSkyB (which stands to lose £80 million in lost programming sales) talking up the odds on its erstwhile bitter rival pulling through. And yes, it is true that at this stage ITV Digital is merely in administration, and yes, this could be just the sort of breathing space it needs to sort itself out and move forward.

But the chances are that if something does re-emerge from this mess we can be pretty sure it won't look anything like the original blueprint.

It won't be an independent digital pay-TV platform to rival cable and satellite. It certainly won't offer unique premium programming, like its own sports channel, not that it was ever what you could call "premium" in the first place.

"ITV Digital 2

could feasibly emerge as a version of Sky Digital, delivered to conventional aerials (with Sky Sports and Sky Movies, as ever, the main marketing hook), in which case BSkyB will basically want control.

Alternatively, it could wither away and become a sorry appendage to a free-to-air digital terrestrial platform dominated by the BBC. Customers would receive this service through the new Pace decoder, selling for £100 until the end of this year, and then for £30 in short order thereafter.

And that could be a huge worry. Growth in pay-TV generally has been slowing for months now and bad press about the sector (not just for ITV Digital but for cable, too) could put people off the whole idea. Last week's ITC figures indicating a slowdown in take-up of cable pay-TV are hardly reassuring.

Nick Theakstone, the head of investment at MindShare, believes that political and economic forces may conspire to make ITV throw its lot in with the BBC. He comments: "The Government is desperate to ensure an analogue switch-off within ten years and for ITV to go in with the BBC would help the growth of digital TV. It would also answer concerns about Sky dominating digital. Once you have all these people on free-to-air digital TV they could add a gizmo (to the Pace system) that will also give them the option of upgrading to pay-TV. So that audience is still there to tap into."

Many sources argue that ITV is actually desperate to be presented with a "least painful

escape route. Granada and Carlton arguably embarked on this adventure not out of any visionary zeal or entrepreneurial fervour but because they had to. They were expected to embrace the future, or at least pretend to, but didn't really have a clue what it all meant. Now they can get back to the real business of managing decline in their core terrestrial market - the media equivalent of a smokestack industry.

Actually, there could be a short-term windfall for fans of ITV1, the channel whose innovations this year include Inspector Morse, Blind Date and the mutant offspring produced by the coupling of the likes of Celebrity Pets and Stars in Their Eyes. Ian Twinn, the director of public affairs at ISBA, can see why people might think that way. He says: "In the short term it's true that there could be an advantage for advertisers because if ITV Digital goes, money won't be draining out of ITV1. They will say that hasn't been happening but the fact is that ITV1 has not been performing as well as might have been hoped."

That said, Twinn agrees that advertisers have to take the long view when considering ITV Digital as well. "I don't think it would be in our interests if digital came down to a head-to-head between Sky and the BBC. Potentially you could be replicating the historical situation (in terrestrial television) with a major platform largely closed off to advertisers. We'd like to see ITV remain strong in the pay-TV market because it's in our interests to have a platform designed by commercial broadcasters, such as ITV. I also think it can have a large part to play in giving viewers the confidence to transfer to digital as it evolves," he adds.

But aren't we forgetting cable in all of this? The cable companies also have a role in the evolution to digital - and ITV Digital's loss could be cable's gain. Aren't they well-placed to mop up defectors from digital terrestrial?

Perhaps, agrees David Cuff, the commercial director of Flextech Television.

But he argues that we're looking at this the wrong way around. It's about giving people choice, not just in terms of TV channels but in delivery systems: in the end people will find a way to get what suits them.

Cuff says: "I can see the digital market resembling the analogue market as it was in the mid-90s, with free terrestrial TV and pay-TV via cable and satellite, though it's still possible that we will still see pay-TV delivered through a digital terrestrial system. There has always been a significant churn from ITV Digital to both cable and satellite. But we must also recognise that there will be a significant rump of people who will not want pay-TV in any form and they will go the free-to-air route."

Surely, though, churn is now a potentially lethal issue for both cable and satellite? For many who feel they've been bullied into buying dozens of channels, the Pace decoder could seem an attractive option. It will be the best and cheapest way of getting the "multi-channel-lite

package that was ITV Digital's original selling point when it first launched.

"We'll see,

Cuff says. But he argues that once you've experienced "the joy of multi-channel TV", you will always want as much of it as you can afford. More channels and more choice will always be addictive, he implies.

What of interactivity, one of digital's big selling points to advertisers?

Does the ITV Digital saga impact on confidence in this market too? No, Andrew Howells, the interactive TV director of OMDtvi, says, because ITV Digital didn't offer much of an interactive advertising option in the first place.

He says: "The most important development recently is ITV1 being available on Sky Digital and you can now run interactive ads on it. ITV1 as a channel is more accessible to interactive advertisers. But the truth is that the market hasn't been big enough for it to be damaged."

But, he adds: "Where there is a concern is that the new Pace boxes we've seen so far don't offer a return path and can't be upgraded. That's a worry. All the evidence suggests that a significant minority isn't interested in subscription TV in any form. For £100 they'll be in the digital domain with 15 free-to-air channels but will effectively be out of our reach. That's obviously unfortunate."

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