FOCUS: THE FUTURE OF THE BBC: Do we want populism or just a public service?

The arrival of digital television has thrown a spotlight on the BBC's role. It's make or break time for the corporation
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magine what would have happened if the BBC had listened to the doubters and refused to expand from radio into the new-fangled world of television. Think how extraordinary it would seem if the corporation had stayed in black and white television while its independent rivals moved into colour. Then, says Sir John Birt, the corporation's director- general, you will understand why the BBC has no choice but to embrace the digital age.

Sir John has been touting the digital message for some time now, yet many remain unconvinced. Shouldn't the corporation be concentrating on BBC1 and BBC2, they ask. Aren't the digital offshoots News 24 and BBC Choice a distraction from the main business?

Yet last week Sir John won a powerful supporter. The economist Gavyn Davies, in the report of his six-month investigation of the licence fee, agreed that the BBC has to be a player in the bright new digital world. "To confine the BBC to its traditional analogue services in the next five years will be to sign its death warrant," he said.

But it's the add-ons that make digital so different. Take, for example, the BBC's autumn educational series called Walking with Dinosaurs. It will probably go out on BBC1 and could then become part of the general science service where all programmes are played on a continuous loop within a few hours of first transmission, ready for call-up and viewing at a time convenient to you. If you registered an interest in science you will have been alerted to the programme in advance. And if there is any point you want to pursue, details will have been placed on the BBC's Online science and natural history websites.

So far these interactive opportunities have not yet caught the public's imagination. But some time in the next decade the Government will make a decision to switch off the ordinary analogue service on which we have been watching Pride and Prejudice. At that moment, without a digital television or a top box to convert your set, there will be no more Nine O'Clock News.

"It is quite striking," Gavyn Davies noted, "that there is an almost complete lack of awareness of what is about to happen. There are a large number of people who believe that the hype about the digital world will prove overdone. They are likely to be proved wrong."

Backers of digital maintain that the BBC has got to be in at the start. It will need a number of channels, or else its presence will be virtually invisible as you flick across the multi-channel spectrum. As Sir John said in his New Statesman lecture last month, viewers "will want all programmes on demand at a time of their choosing. They will want those services to be available on all media, wherever they are ... The BBC cannot be left behind."

The trouble is that the BBC is already in danger of being left trailing. ONdigital will launch its interactive project tomorrow when it announces it will show live Uefa Champions League football games on Tuesdays. Sky is to offer its Sky Sports and digital subscribers another channel called Sports Extra as part of one of its pounds 30 monthly package. It will show live events featuring sports from football to boxing and will let viewers choose how they want to watch their favourite sport. ``The channel that puts you in control'' is one of the slogans to be used by the satellite company.

Viewers will be able to watch replays of memorable goals, foul play and off-the-ball antics with the flick of a switch. Sporting fans will soon have the ability to watch their favourite sport from a variety of camera angles and access on-the-spot statistics.

This debate is taking place, of course, against the background of a long- running tension in the BBC between its remit as a public service provider and its desire to be populist. Then there's the money: essentially can the BBC afford to compete? It told the Davies panel that it needed an extra pounds 650m a year for the next six years (when its Royal Charter comes up for renewal) to increase service provision. The report offers it between pounds 150m and pounds 200m, an amount the BBC says would lead to less original programming.

Yet behind the scenes a different picture has been emerging. Insiders warn against making prophecies of the impact of "only" an extra pounds 150m a year. "We don't know what all this might cost," an executive said.

At least some of its rivals believe the BBC must be secretly smiling like the Cheshire cat at most of the Davies recommendations. "The impression that Davies has been tough on the BBC is incorrect," said a spokesman for the alliance of commercial broadcasters who are incensed by Davies's proposal for a pounds 24 licence fee on users of digital television.

Besides, another television insider noted, it was "terribly simplistic" in the multi-channel era to assume that success was all down to money. Take the departure of the BBC's sports presenter Des Lynam to ITV. Money played its part - the opening bids for Premier football rights are likely to start at pounds 200m, more than a fifth of BBC1's total budget. But Des's love of football was the key. He hated Match of the Day being shunted ever later into the night. Listening to its talent, the BBC concedes, has not always been a strong point. Similarly, Channel 4 won cricketing rights because it promised to be more innovative (and has succeeded) while the BBC had begun to appear complacent.

"The problem with the BBC," said an executive from the independent sector, "is that it has taken its eye off the ball, which is BBC1 and BBC2. These big channels are the absolute flagships, and if the BBC is to succeed it has to get them right."

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