BBC demands dominant role in digital TV

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The Independent Online
The BBC yesterday began a campaign to persuade the Government to give it a dominant power base in the brave new world of digital television, due to start taking over the screens in two years.

The corporation announced that it wants total control of one of the six new digital frequencies - called "multiplexes" - which will provide the technology to create some 20 extra television channels.

A wholly owned multiplex would give the BBC far more power than it would have under the Government's own proposals, made in a consultation paper in August, to award the multiplexes to commercial middlemen.

That scenario could force the BBC to share a frequency with ITV or put the corporation in the humiliating position of having to negotiate with its multiplex operator on programming schedules.

Yesterday John Birt, the BBC's director-general, said: "The digital age will liberate the BBC to provide a far wider range of services. But if we are to make as innovative a contribution to the digital age as we did in the radio and TV age, we need a multiplex for the BBC."

Mr Birt also urged the Department of National Heritage to draw up a timetable for transfer from the present analogue broadcasting system to the digital one, culminating in a switch-off date for analogue.

"We want a clear statement on a timetable from government, a process which leaves the industry in no doubt," he said.

His comments came after the BBC submitted its response to the Government's consultation paper on digital television, which asked for replies by the end of last week.

Digital television - which has been compared by Virginia Bottomley, the Heritage Secretary, to "moving from black-and-white to colour TV" - increases the number of channels which can be broadcast on terrestrial transmitters by compressing more information into the same space.

The system, which will open up television screens to home shopping, home banking and, eventually, video on demand, will start from 1997 although it could take 15 years to effect a complete changeover.

The existing stations - BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 and the yet-to- be-launched Channel 5 - have all been guaranteed one of the extra channels created by the move to digital.

Mr Birt said the BBC would take advantage of the extra broadcasting time to offer viewers increased sports coverage of events such as Wimbledon. Every summer, viewers complain when coverage is switched between the tennis and cricket.

The extra station would also allow a 24-hour BBC news operation, more coverage of arts festivals such as the Proms concerts and "gavel-to-gavel" footage of party conferences and key Commons debates.

A good example of the opportunities offered by digital was VJ Day, Mr Birt added. "With a single multiplex the BBC would have been able to show VJ Day events at length and at one and the same time from different parts of the UK."