DIGITAL REVOLUTION : Great TV - but no new shows

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The Independent Online
The much-heralded TV revolution came a step closer yesterday when the Government awarded the licences for digital TV services. But, in spite of the prospect of more than 230 new TV channels, questions were asked about the whether viewers will really see anything new.

British Digital Broadcasting, a consortium owned by Carlton and Granada, was awarded the licence to broadcast 15 digital pay-TV channels from summer 1998, even though the TV regulator said its rival's programmes were better.

The consortium had been criticised for offering what is already available on satellite and cable: repeats and low-budget or imported programmes.

And the Independent Television Commission admitted, in awarding the franchise, that it was "more attracted by the innovative programme proposals" of the rival bidder, Digital Television Network. It awarded the licence to BDB because it is buying movies and sports channels from BSkyB which will attract more people to digital TV.

The Government wants digital TV to take off so it can sell the analogue frequencies currently used by television companies to mobile phone companies and other users.

The Independent Television Commission only chose the consortium British Digital Broadcasting (BDB) after it forced Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV company, BSkyB, to drop its one-third shareholding in BDB because of worries about Murdoch's dominance of British television.

Digital television will give viewers CD-quality sound, perfect pictures, including widescreen movies, and the capacity to receive up to 30 channels, and perhaps as many as 200, by the end of next year. The 15 pay-TV channels awarded yesterday will include channels from BSkyB's existing satellite service such as the popular Sky Sport and Sky Movies to help entice subscribers.

There will be three channels on BDB, created by an alliance of the BBC with American cable company Flextech: BBC Horizon - a documentary and wildlife channel; BBC Style & Showcase - a lifestyle channel including cookery and gardening programmes; and BBC One-TV, a TV version of Radio 1.

The rest of BDB's channels will be a mixture of channels already available on cable and satellite TV, such as Granada Plus, which shows classic episodes of Coronation Street, and new channels like Carlton Films. BDB will take up "multiplexes" - groups of frequencies - called B, C and D for its 15 subscription channels.

In addition to the subscription BDB channels, the BBC, as distinct from BBC/Flextech, will broadcast BBC1 and BBC2 free on its own multiplex with an extra channel, called BBC Choice, providing extended coverage of sporting events and programmes that support the two main channels For example, a Jane Austen serial on BBC1 could be followed by a documentary about Jane Austen on BBC Choice. The BBC is also planning a free 24-hour news service for its multiplex.

ITV and Channel 4 will share a multiplex which will show their current two channels, as well as an extra channel called ITV2 supported by advertising, and a subscription-based art-house film channel called Channel 4 Film Club.

BDB also plans to supply interactive services such as home shopping, home banking, ticket booking and Internet access because digital TV can broadcast data as well as television.

To receive both the paid-for BDB channels and the free channels viewers will need to buy a digital set-top box. These will go on sale next year and are expected to cost around pounds 200.