Time for the TV industry to fight its corner

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The Independent Online
BBC director general John Birt wants to run Catch-Up TV, an instant repeats channel, on satellite as part of the Corporation's offerings in the new digital TV age.

The ever so catchy title is more appropriate than it sounds. Some would argue that Auntie, ITV, the Government and its panoply of regulators have been playing Catch-Up TV - the game, available on a few good sets - ever since Rupert Murdoch took the bold gamble to sign up Premier League football for Sky in 1992.

Stephen Barden, the former BSkyB executive who writes opposite, certainly does. It hardly matters now whether TV chiefs dispute that his scheme was for them. What is fact is that the industry as a whole, with bigger resources but less chutzpah than Mr Murdoch, has long squabbled and missed chances to take him on.

Last April, the BBC launched to great fanfare its strategy: "Extending Choice in the Digital Age". Gathered then (somewhat mystifyingly) among the great and the good, from Jane Asher to the Archbishop of Canterbury, what struck me was the limit of the BBC's ambition.

BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm, aimed to just triple its pounds 70m contribution over the next 10 years. Contrast that with Sky's turnaround to a record pounds 257m profit this year. And the Beeb, remember, is probably the world's best known brand after Coca-Cola.

Mr Murdoch managed to cast his long shadow over that evening. As a spoiler, the day's press was full of BSkyB's plans to launch hundreds of digital satellite channels, against the measly 20 through digital terrestrial TV (DTTV).

It was yet another example of BSkyB running rings round the opposition. It has already escaped two Office of Fair Trading reviews by making minor concessions on its rate card and the way it forced cable firms to take a bundle of channels, freezing out competitors. But it won the war, succeeding in getting the biggest cable firms to drop their own plans to launch pay-per-view TV and team up in buying films and sport.

With digital now, the industry is in exactly the same position and will most likely face the same divide-and-rule tactics.

Whoever, in the cushy world of Whitehall, produced the plans to license six multiplex operators to run DTTV's few channels deserves a bottle of best Aussie Brut. Not one, but six, all developing set-top boxes and subscriber systems. Come off it.

Whether any competing system to Sky sees the light of day depends on cost and risk, a short-term or long-term view, and co-operation. This is where the Government's draft digital proposals, published 11 days ago, are key.

As they stand, they will allow BBC and ITV access to satellite's set- top box (which will be the first to market) on "fair, reasonable and non- discriminatory terms".

What that means, nobody knows. Oftel, the new regulator, will produce the crucial guidelines later this month. If they are soft, BSkyB will have the latitude to play the same sort of game as with the cable industry.

The Government hopes to lay the regulations before Parliament before the Christmas recess. It is uncertain whether MPs, particularly the Labour party, will force a debate and a vote. They should, and insist the Oftel guidelines be considered as a package.

So where does that leave the Beeb? It might feel unfairly singled out here. It also faces restrictions on how it uses its licence income. But BBC Worldwide does have the capability to strike deals and the Beeb is the biggest of the bunch.

Maybe it will take a change of government to let the leviathan off the leash, but with a bit of Murdoch courage it can take the lead. And as for that old chestnut about using licence (tax) payers' money to subsidise "unfair public sector competition". Well, Mr Murdoch pays no tax, so the taxpayer effectively subsidises him.

Just one of a few arguments, plus good old-fashioned public interest, the BBC and the rest of the industry should be pushing hard. Together.

One law for the rich

When are judges going to take white-collar crime seriously? And when is the Attorney General going to let his displeasure be known?

The score in last week's two insider dealing trials (a lamentable record) was one hung jury (case dismissed) and two convictions (hurrah? - 120 hours of community service).

Our judges are not even consistent in their leniency. Against the 180 hours service doled out to fraudster Roger Levitt, indicted on much bigger charges, perhaps the convicted Queen's Moat duo might have expected a couple of afternoons as lollipop men.

Take better Aim

Last week the Stock Exchange tweaked its admission rules for the Alternative Investment Market.

On the face of it, Aim has been a great success: 240 companies admitted, worth pounds 5bn in all. Set starkly against that, though, was the opinion of fund managers, in a survey a week ago, that the quality of firms was "poor" or "abysmal".

The real test of a market is when fortunes go down, not up. When markets tumble (as on Friday), smaller companies get clobbered most.

With institutions so sniffy, what is not yet known is how much of Aim has been stuffed with private clients of sponsors or their nominated brokers. Perhaps the exchange should introduce limits, say 10 per cent of funds raised.

That would expose Aim firms to a wider institutional view and mean fewer Aunt Agathas get burned when things go wrong.

More care in tunnel

Welcome back Eurotunnel and Eurostar. Despite the problems, the tunnel remains a remarkable achievement, forged not least by Sir Alastair Morton.

It was a joy two weeks ago to take a first Eurostar trip to Paris. Until the 11-hour Tuesday manhandling home, that is.

The fire was not Eurostar's fault. But the confusion and frustration certainly were. Nobody knew what was going on: 500 passengers stranded for hours in a freezing Calais car park were left none the wiser; just five Eurostar staff were supposed to cope.

Let's hope there is no next time. But if there is, for the sake of customer confidence, how about some of that much-vaunted Virgin customer care? (I've had this on my chest for a fortnight, and feel much better for it now.)