Drop fifth channel, says BBC

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THE BBC is urging the Government to reconsider plans to put a fifth television channel up for auction this year, because it claims the move could waste an opportunity to create eight new television stations in three years' time.

Internal BBC research has revealed that all these new services could be squeezed on to the same frequencies, provided the Government scraps its current plan and waits for digital technology.

The eight new channels would be in addition to four already identified by the Independent Television Commission.

The report, which has just been submitted to the Department of Trade and Industry, has been described as 'a real killer for Channel 5' and particularly for MAI, Time Warner and Pearson, which last month formed a consortium to apply for the fifth channel.

Under their proposal, a fifth channel could be up and running within 18 months, using conventional analogue technology.

But the BBC believes this could be a waste of scarce resources, because the channel would eat up the final two national television frequencies.

Its research shows that if reconfigured, the frequencies could create eight new 'standard' television channels or one high-definition channel and one standard service.

While the BBC has no official policy on the use of the channels, it sees an opportunity to offer new services packaged from its massive programme library. Its paper comes amid a growing clamour for Britain to freeze development of conventional television technology.

'I think there is a clear understanding of our view as far as the government is concerned. It is a more appropriate way of approaching channels 35 and 37,' said a BBC spokesman.

But the Channel 5 consortium insists the government should give it the go-ahead on commercial grounds.

'DigitaI television may be five or seven years down the line, Channel 5 is 18 months away and we believe there is an appetite for new channels,' said Roger Laughton, chief executive of Meridian Broadcasting, part of the MAI group.