Murdoch's rivals need concrete proposals: comment

The digital TV revolution is spawning a whole new army of instant experts on so- called "conditional access", the obligation being placed on Rupert Murdoch to make his digital set box technology available to rival broadcasters. How many of these people - consultants, advisers, lawyers, regulators, technicians, politicians and journalists - really understand what they are talking about is a moot point but on one thing everyone is agreed; what happens over the next year is critically important in determining the future in this country certainly of pay-TV if not broadcast television more generally.

Today brings another flurry of submissions to the interminable consultation process on these issues. Despite the fact that any question of forcing Mr Murdoch to license his technology to rivals has already been ruled out, no one seems to have altered their position very much. ITV still insists that broadcasters must be allowed to distribute their own smart cards and manage their own subscribers; Mr Murdoch's technology should be made to accommodate these needs, ITV says. The BBC goes further; what it wants is a "dual standard box" with its own slot for BBC smart cards and its own chip for BBC interactive services. Quite what the difference is between this position and the one the Government has already ruled out is anyone's guess.

The man charged with steering a course through this minefield is Don Cruickshank, director general of Oftel. The idea is that he should regulate conditional access for digital pay-TV in much the same way as he does now for the telecoms industry, where part of his job is to ensure that rival telecoms companies get access to BT's network on fair, non-discriminatory and equal terms. That's what the Government wants to do with the Murdoch digital pay-TV system. When you think about it, this in itself is quite a concession to rival broadcasters, for Mr Murdoch developed the technology for his own digital needs, not for the greater good of others.

The big question is whether Mr Cruickshank is up to the job, for this is no public service telephone company he's dealing with here. Mr Murdoch is one of the most aggressively commercial media players in the world and he will use every tool available to him to ensure his present monopoly of analogue pay-TV is duplicated in the digital world. Mr Cruickshank's unenviable task is to ensure he doesn't.

To stand any chance of making a reasonable fist of it, however, he first needs to know what rival broadcasters want to do. Other than stamp their feet and chant "down with Mr Murdoch" there's not much evidence of them doing anything. Oh, everyone's got a strategy, no doubt about that, but where are the advanced business plans? Rival broadcasters should stop whinging about the terms of conditional access and put forward some concrete proposals for utilising it. Only then will some progress perhaps be made.