Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

High-definition TV hovers over the future of Freeview

Even Rupert Murdoch has had to acknowledge the unexpected success of Freeview. At the recent annual meeting of BSkyB shareholders he told them that he expected the total number of Freeview homes in Britain would, some time soon, pass the number subscribing to BSkyB.

Even Rupert Murdoch has had to acknowledge the unexpected success of Freeview. At the recent annual meeting of BSkyB shareholders he told them that he expected the total number of Freeview homes in Britain would, some time soon, pass the number subscribing to BSkyB.

However this wasn't an uncharacteristic Rupert Murdoch giving up the battle, quite the opposite; according to Mr Murdoch, Freeview's advantage would be only a temporary phenomenon, and in the long term Sky will win because of its superior technology. This is the line Sky executives are peddling, and there is some justification to their claim. It all depends on what you believe will happen to high definition television (HDTV).

The Sky line is that HDTV will inevitably end up the dominant digital television technology and, while both Sky and the cable companies have enough bandwidth to deliver HDTV, that isn't true of Freeview. As a result, they argue, Freeview will be only an interim technology, and eventually Sky and the cable companies will be the ultimate winners in the war of the digital platforms.

The prospect of HDTV has been around for many years, but the technology never really took off in the analogue world. Like many others in the television industry I thought HDTV would go the same way as the Sinclair C5; and then I went to Japan in 2002 (a visit which just happened to coincide with the football World Cup) and became an ardent supporter of HDTV.

The Japanese equivalent of the BBC, NHK, has pioneered the use of HDTV. The cost is not insignificant, but when I saw it in day-to-day use I was overwhelmed by how good it was. The pictures were spectacular. Sport, arts, drama and even news all take on a new dimension when they are broadcast in high definition. NHK had switched all its news crews to HDTV early in the decade and, as a result, had the most riveting pictures of the events of September 11 that I saw anywhere in the world.

With flatscreen televisions selling like hot cakes and with high definition finally now taking off in the US, pioneered by the likes of Discovery, there is a growing belief worldwide that HDTV's time is finally here. The Murdochs, father and son, quite rightly see the coming of HDTV as an enormous opportunity for Sky, particularly in the battle with Freeview and they plan to launch a series of HDTV channels this summer concentrating mainly on sports coverage.

Broadcasting one HDTV channel takes four times as much bandwidth as a traditional digital channel, which is not a big problem for either Sky or the cable companies but is a real issue for Freeview. Spectrum is limited on digital terrestrial television, so if Freeview went totally over to HDTV there would be something like eight channels available rather than the current 32. But there is a possibility of one or two channels switching to HDTV on Freeview, thanks largely to the traditional conservatism of the BBC engineers. When Freeview replaced ITV Digital it was essential that the technology had to work. Many ITV Digital subscribers complained they couldn't get a decent signal; for some their picture was distorted by everyday events like opening the fridge door. If Freeview had hit the same technical problems, the whole project would have been dead in the water.

So both the BBC and its partners in the Freeview venture, Crown Castle, decided they would put only four channels on their multiplexes (as Freeview's six sections are known) to ensure viewers received a decent picture. Now it seems they were too conservative: ITV and Channel 4 have six channels on their multiplex and it seems to work OK, which means the BBC has more channel capacity than it originally thought. The BBC could sell the right to use this extra capacity for new channels and bring in as much as £30m a year, Crown Castle is auctioning one channel and is expecting to get £7m a year for it from either ITV or Channel 4.

Alternatively the BBC could use this extra capacity for HDTV. If it did that it would mean that the BBC could broadcast a minimum of one channel - presumably BBC1 - and possibly even two in HDTV and keep Freeview competitive with Sky for a bit longer. But in the long run the Murdochs could well be right and Freeview's success could be limited by its spectrum constraints; that will depend on the speed at which we're all prepared to junk our existing televisions and buy HDTV sets instead.

Blair's bully is back in town

So Alastair Campbell is back. It's gratifying to see his views of the BBC haven't changed, nor the language he uses about the world's most important public service broadcaster.

Clearly when he dumped Campbell from Downing Street, the Prime Minister promised him that he could come back to help with the election campaign. There are some who believe that Tony Blair needs Campbell and that without him Blair is a diminished character.

But even the Prime Minister must be beginning to question whether it was a wise decision to bring Campbell back, given that within days of his return he has made himself the story yet again. It's hard to see how this won't continue right up until election day.

I only hope the people dealing with Campbell at the BBC recognise him for what he is and don't give an inch in response to his unpleasant and bullying tactics. There's only one way for broadcasters to deal with political thugs - give as good as you get.

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