A revolution still waiting to happen

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Difficult though it is to believe, I'm reliably told you can lead what may seem to be a fulfilled and active life without digital television. Indeed, if you watch five channels in an analogue household and surf during our advertisements, you could be all but blissfully unaware that multi-channel television exists. So how do you sell a product or service to someone who doesn't know they want it?

Before the banks introduced those hole-in-the-wall cash machines, a survey showed that more than 90 per cent of people said they would never use them. It is very much in the interests of ITV and the other public service broadcasters for ONdigital, the digital terrestrial TV platform, to prosper. First, it owns its own shelf-space, second, it has control over the way it presents itself to the public, and third, it's the only alternative to being distributed courtesy of Rupert Murdoch.

The free to air, public-service broadcasters can and should use the popularity of their existing services to let their viewers know of the other services they are missing, and to press the advantages of the digital terrestrial television platform.

The BBC has BBC1 and BBC2 on analogue television, and, if it gets approval from the new secretary of state, is about to add two new services, BBC3 and BBC4. With cross-promotion from BBC1 and BBC2 it will be constantly reminding people that if they've only got two services, then they've only got half the set.

ITV's majority shareholders have now brought together their ITV and ONdigital businesses under a single management, precisely so that we can develop the strong ITV brand into a multi-channel world.

It took us 10 years to fully convert from black-and-white to colour televisions but I believe that was partly because we couldn't show you on your black-and-white set what colour looked like. However, we can use analogue television to tell viewers what digital has to offer. We can show you updates from other matches when you watch the Champions League, or show the fun of participating in Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. We can show you how you can bet on the Derby without leaving your armchair, or chat online to friends about the referee's decision in the Cup Final.

There's a lot we can do, and are doing, for ourselves. But we need some help. One can see the attraction for the Government of allowing the broadcasters to deliver such an important public policy priority, but it isn't going to happen without some serious assistance from them. And frankly, they are not doing enough.

When Chris Smith announced a generalised aim to switch off the analogue signal between 2006 and 2010, he indicated that there would be a nationwide education campaign on the benefits of digital services.

Since then, well over seven million new televisions have been sold in the UK, and can you guess how many of them are digital? Maybe 200,000.

Sony still sells more widescreen analogue sets with screens bigger than 28in than it does the equivalent digital sets. The Government needs to bite the bullet. Appoint a single person with responsibility for delivering the digital project, and give them the power to cut through the barriers.

And we need a bit of favouritism. Far from being anti-competitive, to tilt the playing field slightly in favour of the new technology is actively pro-competitive. The digital terrestrial television platform is our one opportunity to break the stranglehold that Sky has exerted in this market.

That means totally relaxing rules that currently prevent ITV from cross-promoting its pay services. It means encouraging and subsidising the roll out of digital transmissions. It means encouraging, and if necessary subsidising, television manufacturers to produce digital televisions.

And it involves preventing the BBC from using licence payers' money to invent new sports services which distort the commercial marketplace in favour of the dominant platform because they are only available to satellite viewers. The BBC's coverage of Wimbledon is underway. For the select minority of viewers with digital satellite TV, the BBC will be using licence payers' money to provide an enhanced level of sports coverage. The ordinary licence payer will not benefit at all from this innovation. In our view, it is an inappropriate way in which to spend the additional licence fee, paid by all and granted to the BBC last year to fund its digital ambitions. That money would be better spent strengthening the BBC's dedicated digital channels – soon to be BBC3 and BBC4 – or enhancing coverage for all on BBC1 and BBC2 in analogue.

If the BBC goes ahead with its plans it will be using public money to provide a commercial advantage to the already dominant platform. BBC promotions are currently encouraging analogue terrestrial viewers to subscribe to the digital satellite platform; hardly platform neutrality in action.

Stuart Prebble is the chief executive of ITV. This article is based on the Goodman Derrick lecture he delivered at the Royal Society of Arts last week

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