Comment: Everyone gains, but Murdoch gains the most

The battle of the set-top box is over, at least for now. Yesterday's announcement that BSkyB is joining forces with Granada, Carlton and the BBC to launch a digital terrestrial television service ensures for the time being that Rupert Murdoch will not be the sole gatekeeper to the new age of broadcast entertainment and information.

Mr Murdoch did not need to climb into bed with three of his biggest rivals to create British Digital Broadcasting. BSkyB is pressing ahead with its own plans to launch 200 digital satellite television channels this autumn - more than enough to swamp the 30 that will be available on its smaller terrestrial brother.

But by sharing the set-top box with Gerry Robinson at Granada and Carlton's Michael Green and then inviting the world's best public service broadcaster to supply programming, he has neatly side-stepped the accusation that BSkyB wanted to hold everyone else to ransom by controlling access to a mass infotainment market.

The sighs of relief from Whitehall were almost audible, not least from the Science and Technology Minister, Ian Taylor. The Jeremiahs who said digital would be monopolised by one company and one platform had been proved wrong, he declared.

Well, perhaps. But it is certain that, if not a monopoly, then digital television will remain the province of an oligopoly for the foreseeable future. Even that requires some heroic assumptions. One is that the creative, commercial and financial tensions that have brought BDB together will not just as easily tear it apart, leaving Mr Murdoch still holding the encryption technology fast to his breast when everyone else has departed.

A second is that there will be more than one provider in the "commercial" sector of the digital market. When bids closed at noon yesterday for the four "multiplexes" or blocks of frequency being offered by the Independent Television Commission, there was only one other taker. International CableTel may be a reputable player but it is on its own, erstwhile partners like Lord Hollick's United News having pulled out as word spread that Mr Murdoch was in town.

A third assumption is that public service broadcasters like the BBC will attack the market with gusto, perhaps by launching pay channels in their own right.

Finally, we have to rely on BDB's set-top boxes being accessible on open, fair and reasonable terms to other broadcasters, and the regulatory system being capable of preventing any abuse of this conditional access.

What will digital terrestrial television actually mean for the viewer and the provider? For the viewer it will bring forward the day when subscription television enters every living room in the country. Television sets will come fitted with the technology that allows sport or films to be viewed on a pay-as-you-go basis. Just plug in and watch, and all without that ugly dish on the outside wall.

The market is huge and untapped - barely a quarter of homes have subscription TV. BSkyB must calculate that once viewers have tasted digital terrestrial they will migrate to its own digital satellite service where the real killing is to be made. Why, you ask, would anyone want another 200 channels at their disposal when they have already got 30 to chose from, half of which will be free? The answer lies in how that satellite capacity will be used. Forget about imported US sitcoms, drama repeats and game shows. Those 200 channels will be used to pump Hollywood blockbusters or live action sport into the home on a pay-per-view basis. An easier option than a trip to the video store or local stadium and a big money spinner for BSkyB.

Of course, everyone else stands to gain as well. Carlton and Granada get another outlet for their pay channels and the BBC and Flextech get paid handsomely for the new channels they are jointly developing. But, as ever, the biggest winner will be Mr Murdoch. He will neutralise the political and commercial opposition and form a bridgehead between the two halves of his digital empire. And all for an outlay of pounds 100m - small change by BSkyB's standards.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own