THE CASE FOR THE FREE MARKET: The future of broadcasting

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In his speech last week, Sir John Birt argued that digital television risked damaging British culture and dumbing down our viewing. This was not only wrong, but bemusing. Sir John, more than anybody else, has dragged the BBC kicking and screaming into the digital age. I took my hat off to him last year at the Edinburgh TV festival, lauding him for his recognition of the importance of the digital revolution. His recent apologies for his own strategy betray a worrying lack of confidence in the legacy he is leaving the Corporation.

His dire warnings are wrong because they fundamentally misunderstand the benefits of digital and ignore the explosion in quality programming that has been embraced by programme-makers and film-makers alike.

Digital technology puts viewers in control, allowing them to choose what they want, when they want, rather than having their viewing dictated by schedulers. We should, as television creators, accept the challenge of that profound change.

Sir John argued that this choice would undermine the shared experiences which traditional television has offered. But those shared experiences were the unintentional by-product of the technological capacity constraint in the analogue world. Digital removes that constraint, allowing viewers the sorts of personalised choices in television which they take for granted in every other type of media.

We should celebrate that. Diversity is the friend of a strong civil society, not the enemy. Only societies frightened of themselves try to constrain media choices. I find it bizarre that the people who argue that our print media is over-concentrated are often the same people who rail against too much diversity in television.

Nor does more choice inevitably lead to a dumbing down, as Sir John sought to imply. Indeed, the end of the technologically imposed monopoly ensures that only good-quality programmes survive.

Sky has recognised the need to respond to choice with quality. We revolutionised the way sport was covered in this country, to a degree of quality which even the most hardened Murdoch-haters find hard to criticise. We will take our coverage a stage further when, at the start of the new Premier League season, we launch interactive applications allowing viewers to select highlights, match statistics, and alternative camera angles.

SkyDigital now broadcasts 11 channels dedicated to documentaries. Programme organisations such as The History Channel, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel produce and broadcast more award-winning documentaries than the BBC has over its entire history.

Sky Pictures, Sky's film-production division, invests more money per subscriber in British films than the BBC does. The fruits of our labours will be seen first in November, when Sky Premier will screen Saving Grace, a comedy starring Martin Clunes and Bafta winner and Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn. Another of Sky Pictures' 12 films next year, Tube Tales, with Ewan McGregor and Denise Van Outen, has been honoured with the opening of the London Film Festival.

Sky One is now more popular with young people with digital than many of the terrestrial channels. Our leadership in youth programming has been noted by Channel 4, which has bought our award-winning weekly drama Dream Team. This is the first time a terrestrial channel has ever acquired a programme made by a satellite channel. So I challenge anyone to argue that digital is providing poor-quality television.

Sir John's plea for more money for the BBC in the digital age was predictable. Commercial companies seek to boost revenues by making better programmes; the BBC seeks to boost revenues by investing in an army of lobbyists and staging speeches to the great and good about the need for more money.

Of course the BBC needs funding, but it is hardly poor. It has guaranteed revenues of pounds 2.2bn from the licence fee, and supplements that through commercial means. It is now seeking to persuade the Government to impose a pounds 30 poll tax on anybody who chooses digital television.

That would be crazy. In this age of choice, people should not be forced to pay for extra BBC digital channels they may not want. If we are worried, as Sir John said he was, about the dangers of creating an information poor who may miss out on digital, then a digital poll tax should be rejected.

It is true that greater choice in television will profoundly alter the role of the BBC. Instead of asking for more money from viewers at a time of fragmenting audiences, its answer should be to rise to the challenge by producing quality programmes unavailable in the commercial sector and to slash the money it spends on bureaucrats and lobbyists. Above all, it should not try to preserve the old order. However comforting a prospect that may be, it will, in the end, be fruitless. A revolution is under way, and the viewers love it. This is no time to stop the world and try to get off.

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