How Murdoch could bury the BBC

Warning over BSkyB control of channels gateway
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The Independent Online
Watching television has traditionally been the most passive of leisure pursuits. But in the not too distant future, couch potatoes may need a PhD in computer science to be sure of catching the next episode of EastEnders.

That is the gnawing fear among senior BBC executives as they nervously brace themselves for the dawn of the digital age, when switching on a programme will become a matter of mice and menus rather than simply pressing a button.

The BBC's basic anxiety is that, left to his own devices, Rupert Murdoch could bury its varied offerings - the two conventional terrestrial networks BBC1 and BBC2 plus a host of new digital services - beneath his own, ever burgeoning broadcast fare. In the BBC's opinion, viewers should be confronted with established channels like BBC1 after only a few clicks and not have to scroll through a torrent of sales pitches for BSkyB's pay-TV channels.

BSkyB could be tempted to impose this structure because it will control the set-top boxes which will allow satellite subscribers to tune in to 200 channels.

The design and control of these gadgets, particularly the on-screen electronic programme guide (EPG), will determine how viewers are able to find out what's on the box.

The BBC yesterday appealed to the telecommunications watchdog, Oftel, to draw up guidelines which will regulate this digital gateway and ensure that BSkyB does not abuse its dominance of the digital satellite system. Patricia Hodgson, the corporation's director of policy and planning, said: "In the digital age, consumers will no longer be able to select the channel or programme they want at the touch of a button. They will depend on the EPG. This needs to preserve the choices the viewer has today and extend them.

"Viewers will want to continue to get easy access to the main free-to- air networks [BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and the forthcoming Channel 5], which will continue to make up the majority of television watched in existing cable and satellite households."

She added: "The viewer will not thank modern technology if it makes it more difficult for them to see what they can take for granted today."

Ms Hodgson says she is confident that Oftel will not fail the BBC or Britain's viewers, praising it as "a tough and proven regulator in the related telecommunications field".

Don Cruickshank, director general of Oftel, has declared his determination to bring about "a world in which broadcasters can compete whether or not they own the network".

None the less, Britain's terrestrial broadcasters do doubtless remain at the mercy of Mr Murdoch because he got off his mark before everyone else to develop the set top boxes.