Comment: Place your bets on digital TV runners

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The Independent Online

Every day, seemingly, brings a fresh piece of speculation on the soon- to-be-awarded licences for digital terrestrial television The latest wrinkle comes from Kleinwort Benson, which argues convincingly that the two rival consortia would probably have to merge in the event that the Independent Television Commission decides to split the three licences between them The split licence approach has become very much the fashionable theory in the industry and the City, since it would allow the ITC to duck the politically charged decision of choosing between the two and allow it to give something to both

The trouble is, as KB points out, that both consortia are saying they couldn't afford to subsidise the costs of the set top box unless given all three licences And without the box, there will be no digital terrestrial Ergo, the two consortia would have to merge, which in turn would mean that Sky, the largest and most aggressive of all the companies involved in the bidding, would end up running the show In other words, splitting the licence would be self-defeating, and if the ITC wants to minimise Sky's influence on the new platform, it is going to have to award all three licences to the rival consortium, NTL and Lord Hollick

Whether any of this speculation has much bearing on the ITC's deliberations is anyone's guess In theory, the ITC is an entirely independent body, evaluating the rival proposals in judicial manner according to a prescribed set of criteria and standards The ITC is meant to be entirely immune to the cut and thrust of public lobbying and debate In practice, however, it cannot help but be influenced by the general noise around it and it may be worse than that

Not that Labour's policy on media matters gives much of a clue to the outcome, for so far, there doesn't seem to be much of a policy Ranting against the bonuses of Camelot bosses is about the most coherent thing we've so far had out of Chris Smith, our new Heritage Secretary, which isn't saying a lot So place your bets A month ago, we would certainly have said Sky and BDB But the odds are changing by the day, and the rivals, Lord Hollick and NTL, are now the bookies' favourite