Leading Article: Digital rules in television. OK

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The Independent Culture
PETER BAZALGETTE'S MacTaggart Memorial Lecture yesterday, calling for an end to television regulation, and accusing the regulators themselves of elitism and arrogance, is not likely to have made him many friends in the industry.

Mr Bazalgette, managing director of Bazal, the production company that gave us Can't Cook, Won't Cook, may have found another circle of friends: the wider public. Anyone who has ever wondered why we have to watch Channel 4 on Friday nights for good comedy, imported from America, will have listened with interest. British television does do many things well - natural history, documentaries, gritty and historical drama. But its record in producing lighter fare - comedy and less serious drama - is dismal.

All the evidence is that such programmes are favoured by the age group, 18-to-35-year-olds, that producers are desperate to attract. Mr Bazalgette's vision is credible. New cable and digital technology will help to make channels more responsive; Sky Sports' coverage has already served to sharpen up the acts of terrestrial programmes. To this extent, the regulation of which Mr Bazalgette complains may wither away as competition does a better job of ensuring quality.

No one wants to lose the peculiar qualities of British television in a rush to become increasingly like America. In particular, constant and clumsy advertising breaks are the bane of American television. But digital technology should allow a range of funding options, including pay-per- view and subscription, that get round this problem. By opening up new sources of revenue, digital television should lift the temptation to raise money through endless advertising.

This process cannot be left to itself. Children will still need protection from violent or sexual images, on certain channels and at certain times. Access to the new digital channels should be kept open, by legislation if necessary, to prevent a monopoly emerging which might stifle the new competition.

Direct political bias in news coverage must still be banned, unlike the situation in Italy, where media moguls can use their power over information in running for office. Political parties should still have access to free slots, in order to avoid the corruption that has crept into American politics. There, increasing pressure to buy advertising slots on television has meant that political parties have become ever more greedy and desperate in their search for funds.

However, regulation's scope will be much narrower, without the direct quotas for different programme types now imposed by the Government. Viewer choice, with exactly the desired type of programme available at all times, will make those rules obsolete. With the power to stop receiving any type of programme at will, external controls over taste and decency will be less important to viewers.

Even the BBC's remit may come to seem dated. The licence fee will hold the corporation back, since it will not be able to exploit its enormous brand power to raise funding on the stock-market. Just as the nationalised electricity, gas and telecoms industries came to feel constrained by the meanness of successive British governments, the impulse for change may come from within. One thing is for sure: Mr Bazalgette's preoccupations are those of the future, and his solutions are among those which will come to seem inevitable.