Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Why content will be king in the great British battle for 'triple play'
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The Independent Online

For 20 years the phrase "content is king" has been bandied about in the television world suggesting that, in the next era of television or the one after that, the producers and owners of programmes would eventually be the most powerful media players around and would make the most money. So far in Britain there's no sign of that happening, despite the wishes of the independent production sector that it should, but in the United States there are the beginnings of a war which might just make it more likely in the future.

Every year around this time I get to spend a few days with some of the top media players in the US to find out what's happening in their media scene. I go because, over the years, I've discovered that whatever is happening today in the US will be here tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

The topic on everyone's lips in the US was the fierce battle that is starting up between the cable companies, the traditional telephone companies and the power companies to get control of the supply of media services to the home.

The battle is known as the triple - or even the quadruple - play whereby one company will eventually supply the average home with all its needs in terms of home telephony, free and pay television, high-speed internet access and even mobile telephony. Given the number and size of the players involved it's easy to see why the battle has turned into a war, with up to five different companies battling it out to be the one to deliver the broadband pipe into the home and with it all television services including traditional television, pay TV and TV on demand.

Historically in the US, television was supplied by your local cable company, your telephone by the telephony company and your electricity by the local power company, and each made a lot of money doing it. Simple. But all that is changing.

It started when the cable companies such as Comcast, which delivers television to a quarter of homes in the US, were faced with satellite television taking some of their customers. They decided to respond by offering telephone services as well as television to their millions of customers. This, in turn, was seen as a massive threat to the big telephony companies which were already losing out to the mobile phone operators - 6 per cent of homes in the US have already given up on traditional telephones and just use mobiles.

Faced with the mobile companies eating their lunch from one direction and the cable companies doing the same thing from another, the big telephony companies have decided to fight back. Some of them have decided to go head to head with the cable companies by bidding for local franchises which will enable them to deliver all three services.

This US battle for who controls the broadband home in the era when television on demand becomes a reality is already pretty fierce and appears to be getting much fiercer. It will certainly result in an awful lot of money being spent on both hardware and software without anyone knowing who the likely winner will be, if there is one.

But events of recent months suggest that the same battle could be about to happen here in the UK. The newly merged NTL/Telewest is best placed to be the biggest "triple play" player in Britain as it can already deliver all three services - television, telephony and broadband. But Sky's decision to go into the broadband business by spending £150m to buy Easynet shows shows that it doesn't intend to be left behind. And BT has announced its intentions to join the UK battle with plans to launch its video on demand service Nevis next year.

So why could all this be good news for the programme producers? In the US none of the players battling it out to be the number one broadband pipe actually own much content, and yet they will all need content if they've any chance of winning the war. The laws of supply and demand tell you that when a whole range of big, nasty distribution companies end up fighting each other for the same content, the price goes through the roof. There's certainly a view among media folk in the US that in these circumstances content becomes king.

...but we won't be paying twice for BBC programmes

Who would have guessed that Desperate Housewives, currently the biggest success on US television and a real hit on Channel Four in the UK, would be the first programme to really bring it home to the US public what pay per view television will be all about.

A week or so ago Disney, the producers of Desperate Housewives, announced that the programme would soon be available for $2 a time to be downloaded onto the new video iPod which was recently launched by Apple. What makes the deal special is not only that it is the first of its kind in the US, but that the programme will be available within hours of being played on ABC on Sunday nights. Most broadcasters would have complained bitterly about this but because Disney owns ABC it can largely do what it wants.

People have talked about video on demand for years but since the Desperate Housewives deal was announced all sorts of people have suddenly understood what this new means of programme delivery will actually do. It really is history in the making.

In Britain the BBC is planning a similar service by making most of its programming available on platforms like the video ipod for seven days after it has been broadcast. The difference is the BBC programmes will be available for free. Their logic is that the public have already paid for the programmes through the licence fee and it would be unfair to make them pay again.