Media column: The new television

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The Independent Online
The new television has made huge inroads into the British audience but there is a big obstacle to further growth - the continuing availability of terrestrial broadcast channels.

Rob Brown, media editor, says the Murdoch empire is now focusing on the abolition of the compulsory licence - and a campaign to see it go has already begun.

Rupert Murdoch can be refreshingly candid. He was certainly so at BSkyB's AGM last week when he frankly and publicly contradicted one of his soon-to-depart senior lieutenants.

David Chance, deputy managing director of the satellite broadcaster, had waxed enthusiastic about the potential of pay-per-view television for films and a whole range of concerts and sporting events. But his boss soon shot him down.

"Pay per view has only worked in a big way for huge boxing events," Murdoch snarled. "When it comes to pay-per-view on a more regular basis, it is much more difficult."

It wasn't the first time the Australian-American mogul has advised his minions not to get too carried away. In an equally up-front speech in Davos, Switzerland, a few years back, Murdoch pointed out that experience in the US had shown that even inveterate couch potatoes are prepared to shell out only so much each month for audio-visual entertainment in all its forms.

Murdoch realises that British telly viewers are even less disposed to pay for television. Our reluctance stems in large measure from the fact that we are compelled annually to buy a television licence. Having done so, most of us feel we have paid enough for television, thank you very much.

Obviously such psychological resistance has been gradually breaking down as BSkyB has expanded its multi-channel package. Live sport is proving a really powerful battering ram. And cable television has been able to appeal more to middle-class home-owners, who regarded satellite dishes as ugly contraptions.

Still, the compulsory annual licence remains a massive psychological obstacle for purveyors of multi-channel television, who have had to offer far cheaper telephone calls to drive cable into middle-class homes. Three- quarters of UK households still receive only five - or even four - channels.

That is why one of the chief missions of the Murdoch media empire in the coming years will be to bring about the abolition of the compulsory licence. The chief psychological obstacle to the expansion of multi-channel television must be removed if BSkyB is to boost its turnover and profits massively in the years ahead.

The campaign to achieve that has already subtly started. BBC mandarins were somewhat startled at the recent Conservative Party conference in Blackpool to find top Tories, including the shadow home secretary Sir Brian Mawhinney, challenging them to justify the licence fee when the BBC was losing audiences and sporting rights to its satellite competitors. BSkyB had obviously been lobbying hard behind the scenes for some time.

Then last week Channel 5's chief executive, David Elstein, called publicly for the abolition of the licence fee and the conversion of the BBC into a subscription service. The former head of programmes at BSkyB still talks and sounds like a Murdoch man.

Does it matter? The Conservatives will be out of power until at least 2002. Chris Smith, the minister for culture, media and sport, believes Elstein is talking "bollocks" - and has said so to his face in public. More to the point, the BBC is operating on a three-year funding arrangement which runs until 2001. So, in short, the licence looks safe for the duration of the first Blair administration.

It does matter and Auntie is wise not to sit back in her comfy armchair and assume that she has a secure future in her digital dotage. The BBC's self-preservation campaign has already begun. Have you seen those lovely little promotional films the corporation is running to mark its anniversary? Mikhail Gorbachev, Whoopi Goldberg and the Dalai Lama are among global celebrities who have sung the Beeb's praises in a series of audio-visual vignettes.

Other promo films stress that the BBC can only supply the service it does because of the unique way in which it is funded. We (the loyal, law- abiding licence holders) make the BBC what it is, we are told. It is a charming kiss-off line.

But why are we being bombarded with all this corporate propaganda now? It all seems rather excessive, even for a 75th anniversary. You'd think a referendum on the future of the BBC was approaching.

Defenders of the licence fee and public-service broadcasting are just limbering up for what they know will be a battle not just for eyeballs, but for hearts and minds, as the digital revolution unfolds and the BBC share of total audience inevitably dwindles in multi-channel homes.

David Docherty, the BBC's deputy director of television and former head of strategy, believes the BBC can and must win this battle because, as he puts it, "public-service broadcasting is fundamental to the functioning of a healthy liberal democracy". To thrive for a further 75 years, the BBC, according to Docherty, "must stand for an intelligent and sophisticated celebration of the culture and values on these islands".

Fabulous sentiments, David. Just very hard to square with the decision by some of your senior colleagues to schedule a fine and moving film about Nye Bevan last night at the ungodly hour of 11.15pm on BBC2 - and to run no trailers. Down-grading this drama was an insult not just to Wales but to the memory of a principled and visionary politician who created an institution even more cherished by British people than the BBC - the National Health Service.

If BBC schedulers want the corporation to be wiped off the map by its enemies, they should carry on alienating the staunchest defenders of public- service broadcasting with such crass insensitivity.

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