Digital dilemma

The Broadcasting Bill must offer long-term protection for our public service channels, argues Damian Green
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The Independent Online
The House of Commons has its second reading of the Broadcasting Bill today, and you may be forgiven for thinking that the televising of sport is its most vital element. But the Bill has a more important purpose - to usher in TV's digital age.

The Bill has to make life better for viewers, which means all mainstream services should remain available to every home, and the greater choice offered by digital technology should be open to as many viewers as possible.

A digital signal takes up less spectrum than the current analogue signal, so more digital channels can be offered than analogue channels. Digital channels can come from either the hilltop transmitters that bring us Coronation Street or the satellites and cables that bring The Simpsons.

The conventional wisdom is that viewers will benefit from the switch to digital because what was once scarce (spectrum) will become plentiful, and we will be able to pick up specialist channels the way we browse magazine racks, while retaining the virtues of the mainstream channels.

But the conventional wisdom depends on the assumption that the transmission system in the digital age will resemble our current system, where nearly every household has access to a few general channels through the network of transmitters, and those who want more can buy in signals from the sky or under ground.

The Broadcasting Bill ensures that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 will gain slots on the digital terrestrial network and assumes this is enough to preserve their availability to all viewers. However, the problem with this is that over the next 10 years every household will have to take a decision about what type of digital system it wants to replace its current analogue TV. Instead of the situation where every household has one basic system, the digital market will divide.

Some will want the 30 to 40 digital terrestrial channels, others will opt for the 200 digital channels from a satellite, or a cable system, or an upgraded telephone line.

Although digital terrestrial has its own technical advantages, such as its ability to be used on portable sets, it seems likely that the audience will fragment. Each fragment will make its own choice of delivery system, based on cost, convenience and the range of channels offered. What is certain is that the current system of universal transmission with added options will not be the model of the future.

This is dangerous because the end of a universal transmission system threatens to deprive audiences of the mainstream channels and could mean the end of public service broadcasting. The reason for the existence of the licence fee and the regional advertising privileges granted to the ITV companies is that the broadcasters promise to deliver high quality programmes. If a significant percentage of the audience cannot for technical reasons reach their programmes, their main purpose is gone. The licence fee will be unjustifiable. The BBC will have to close or retreat to a high-minded ghetto, while the ITV companies and Channel 4 will have to concentrate purely on making money.

Some argue that the fate of the terrestrial broadcasters can be left to the market. If the BBC and ITV programmes are so good, they will be able to negotiate slots on all delivery systems.

Unfortunately, commercial reality tells us that vertically integrated companies, which control the means of access to the paying public, and which also make their own programmes, have a great incentive to keep rival programmers off the screen. The short-term cost - offering a less attractive package to viewers - is more than compensated by the eventual elimination of a rival.

The risk of the public service channels disappearing raises questions about democratic debate. Most people gain their analysis of public events from TV. Changes that might end the provision of universally available comment could be dangerous.

If viewers want to be sure that they keep their traditional on-screen providers of information and entertainment, as well as enjoying the new choices on offer, the Broadcasting Bill must ensure it. To this end specified public service channels should be carried on all delivery systems, at reasonable rates. The alternative is to sleepwalk into a new era assuming that viewers will benefit from extra choice, while in practice putting in jeopardy the traditional strengths of British broadcasting.

As the Commons considers the Broadcasting Bill, MPs must think through the need for long-term safeguards for our public service channels.

The writer is the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Ashford. He is a former adviser to the Prime Minister on broadcasting issues.