NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON FREEVIEW - What role will commercial TV have in the BBC digital vision?

Alasdair Reid investigates the change Freeview is set to bring about in British TV.

The BBC definitely likes to see itself as a big game player. In historic terms, it sees itself as a visionary entity, a keeper of destinies and one of the immortals. So prepare for a noise of Wagnerian proportions this autumn when the corporation starts telling us about the born-again digital terrestrial TV platform, Freeview. The BBC is embarking on one of its once-in-a-generation crusades, and the analogy, not for the first time, is with the advent of colour TV more than 30 years ago.

Last week, DFGW was appointed the lead agency on the launch, which, if the original schedule is adhered to, should be in mid-October. Actually, that could be quite a big "if" as there are a couple of technical issues still to be resolved that could have huge implications, especially for commercial broadcasters such as Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV.

When it does launch, the marketing strategy will involve not only DFGW, but all of BBC Television's roster agencies - Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (which works on BBC News and BBC2) and Fallon (BBC Choice and its probable successor, BBC3). This is because, as well as the digital creative work, digital themes are expected to be integrated into all BBC activity for the foreseeable future.

Michael Finn, the chief executive of DFGW, doesn't think people really appreciate the scale or the importance of Freeview.

"For instance, I don't think they understand how vital it is in political terms, given the Government's determination to switch off analogue. From that point of view alone, failure is not an option. But it's huge in terms of involving a whole sector of the population in multi-channel TV that hasn't been involved before. This is a seismic event in British broadcasting."

It's just a shame, in that case, that the commercial sector is not exactly disposed to see it in unreservedly generous terms. As last week's appointment of DFGW was being announced, a dispute involving channel allocation was continuing to rumble on, and if it is not resolved soon, it could result in Freeview's launch being delayed.

As you may recall, when ITV Digital went under the Government was abjectly grateful when the Beeb indicated that it might be persuaded to perform a salvage operation on the ailing DTT platform.

The Independent Television Commission re-advertised the licence and the BBC application, filed in partnership with Crown Castle and featuring technology based on a new £99 decoder box from Pace, was duly rubber stamped following a competitive tender process.

The system is free to access once you've stumped up for the decoder box.

Which makes it attractive in many quarters, not least among those keen to see the analogue signal turned off.

On the other hand, the commercial sector (including ad agencies and advertisers too) had mixed feelings about all of this. Though the BBC was now firmly in control, there was still to be room for commercial channels to exist on the new system. However, now it looks as if there might be less room than was initially expected.

The BBC has served notice that it wants to change technical aspects of the broadcast system. It's a simple trade off - the technical reappraisal will increase signal strength but at a cost to the amount of channel capacity available to non-BBC media owners.

The ITN News channel is the highest profile channel believed to be threatened and the issue about whether it will be possible to add pay-per-view services at some stage in the future is also at stake.

The ITC is currently reviewing the situation. Some senior advertisers are believed to be making their views clear to the ITC, and are, quite frankly, sceptical about the BBC's technical arguments. The commercial channels are also making their views clear.

Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA's Media Policy Group, is less than optimistic and suggests that this is a piece of a bigger picture in which the BBC is currently getting all the breaks.

He suggests that commercial channels should not hold out too much hope on the launch of Freeview or indeed over the launch of BBC3, which in turn could also have a worrying impact on the commercial market.

Marshall says: "We would obviously like to think that the right sort of pressure can be brought to bear on the BBC. The Government has been ignoring the signals, but the lobby is still there and there will be continuing pressure for a genuine scrutiny of what the BBC delivers. And when papers like The Guardian (traditionally a stout defender of the BBC, but now openly critical of the corporation's digital strategy) says that it has misgivings, then I think you have to recognise that there is a genuine groundswell of opinion here."


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