The BBC's digital dilemma

The corporation should be staking its claim now as the flagship digital service of the near future
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The Independent Culture
I DON'T get digital television. I don't mean that I don't understand it - I understand it well enough to know that I shall have to get it eventually. I simply mean that I haven't subscribed yet because I am waiting for The Market To Decide. When the market has weighed up all of its decisions I shall, as far as I can see, have only two choices. These will be: one, continue to have a television set; two, to have no television. These choices are astoundingly similar to the choices I have always had, and, because I like the telly as much as the next man, they amount to no choice at all.

While I admire the gumption of those among us who asserted in a recent survey that they would "never" convert to digital television, I don't think that 28 per cent of the population is really going to opt out of the broadcast medium, come the day when analogue systems have transmitted their final programmes. They just haven't caught up with the idea that the market isn't in the process of deciding "if". All that is left to be decided is "when" and "with what technology".

Like the people who were never going to switch over to CD from vinyl, then realised that the market-led choice was in fact music or no music, they will eventually have to buy some new equipment. Their old analogue tellies will be obsolete, useful only for playing old videos, just as record-players are useful only for playing old records.

For even though a significant minority of consumers are making it clear that they wish to stay as they are, this is a choice that they have only in the short term, while all concerned with the broadcast media wait to see how everything shakes down.

"Everything shaking down", essentially, is all about getting enough digital subscribers in place for the market to be able to take the stragglers with it when the entire broadcasting network shifts to digital. This is desirable for all broadcasters for various reasons, many but not all of them purely commercial ones. The storage and retrieval of digital programmes, for example, will be more flexible and much cheaper in the new age. No more gasping over the fact that the Beeb has taped over most of Tony Hancock. Such matters as limited shelf space will never again figure in considerations of which aspects of the nation's broadcasting heritage should be saved for posterity.

It is in the interests of all broadcasters to get a critical mass of viewers switched over to digital as quickly as possible. That is part of the reason why SkyDigital and ONdigital are both now offering their set-top boxes free to subscribers, even though both companies have reached their launch subscription targets.

Each of them wants to be the market leader at the time when everyone who wants to have telly is forced to go digital. It is also why the BBC is so keen to establish a supplementary licence fee for digital subscribers right now. In the very near future, when all television is digital, it will become difficult for the BBC's channels to resist the pressure to become just another form of pay TV. So the company wants to set a precedent as soon as possible.

The advent of digital has already put the Beeb in a difficult position. The corporation has been much criticised for launching its four digital channels using licence-payers' money. The Beeb now broadcasts BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge, as well as its two terrestrial channels. These are available to cable, satellite and digital subscribers, but not to the terrestrial-only viewers who funded them. This clearly is not fair.

The BBC suggests that licence-payers' money will not be used in future to finance digital channels. To this end, the corporation is not only asking for a digital licence fee, but also broadcasting five commercial channels - UK Gold, UK Horizons, UK Style, UK Arena and UK Play. The idea is that these channels will provide funding for the core, advertising- free channels that the BBC already runs. It is all a rather murky compromise and, in the short term at least, the only result is that the BBC's funds, expertise and resources are being spread too thinly. It does not bode well.

However, the BBC argues, not without logic, that it must gain a foothold in digital broadcasting, for digital broadcasting is "the Future". Since the future of digital broadcasting is being decided by the market, this means, among other things, that the market is deciding the future of public service broadcasting in Britain. The BBC certainly seems to have grasped this, but, sadly, only dimly. That can be the only explanation for the piecemeal, bet-hedging approach that Auntie is taking to the whole situation.

Instead of simply wanting a presence in the great shakedown, and pounds 30 from digital subscribers, the BBC should be arguing for much more, and the Government should be supporting it. And instead of concentrating on maintaining a presence during this period of transition - for that is all it is - the BBC should be lobbying for a guarantee of pre-eminence when all of Britain has been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.

The trouble for the BBC is that it can't just name the day when it will start broadcasting its entire output digitally, and expect to take all licence-payers with it. Nor can it do what ONdigital and SkyDigital are doing: give out equipment in return for subscriptions. Instead the corporation is in the same invidious position as the consumer. If it doesn't jump now, it will be pushed anyway. That's why the BBC should be staking its claim as the flagship digital service of the near future.

The television licence must stay, and must continue to be a levy charged on the ownership of such an item. What the consumer should get in return for his licence fee is a range of public service programming similar to, but more specialised than, that already offered across all four of the terrestrial channels. BBC1 and BBC2 should stay, although it might be a good idea to ban repeats from these services and license the programmes for advertising to be sold around repeat runs. So while the viewer gets to see an ad-free EastEnders the first time round, the omnibus could be broadcast on commercial television, thus generating revenue for programme- making.

BBC News24 and BBC Parliament are clearly channels that serve the public interest, and these too should be included in a reconfigured package. Obviously, there's no real point in running separate news programmes on the two main channels, so the entire newsgathering operation of the BBC could be concentrated on to this one service, which will be received by all television viewers.

BBC Knowledge is also a good idea, concentrating as it does on education and interactivity. But the part of the population that is most in need of advert-free broadcasting - children - should be fully catered to as well. Parents are driven mad by the lavish advertisements that appear on the children's channels that are already in operation, and most would be grateful for a service that children enjoy, which doesn't have any advertising on it.

But whatever the configuration of channels and of programmes, they should be quality ones that offer viewers a bit of everything decent the broadcast media has to offer, without the intrusion of advertisements or sponsorship.

Obviously, the BBC would stop being a public service if the licence fee were prohibitively high, so there is a limit to the services a BBC digital service could offer. But the BBC does need to be nurtured, protected and differentiated from all of the other television channels if it is to survive and thrive.

Anyone who believes that quality programming can survive the digital revolution otherwise, need only come round to my place. I may not get digital yet, but I do get cable. Repeats, ghastly chat shows, not-very- late-night porn, imports and often a combination of all four. Why do we need improved technology to watch all that schlock? And the ad breaks last so long that you've forgotten the programme you're watching by the time it comes back on.