New bids on the block

The Murdoch-BBC axis has grabbed the headlines in the battle for control of digital TV, but another group has quietly submitted proposals. And they aren't in the race just to make up the numbers. By Rob Brown

It has been dubbed Britain's second D-Day by melodramatic headline- writers. But the struggle to secure digital terrestrial TV multiplexes - the technology which promises to usher the vast bulk of British viewers into the multi-channel era - would appear to be lacking two vital ingredients for a riveting drama: conflict and suspense.

Indeed, if you base your knowledge of this topic purely on media reports, you may well think that the battle for DTT has already been fought and won by British Digital Broadcasting, the new behemoth created by the big ITV stations Carlton and Granada in a startling alliance with BSkyB and even the BBC. BDB's proposal has dominated media coverage since the Independent Television Commission's deadline for DTT applications expired 10 days ago. But there is a rival consortium bidding for the blocks of frequencies, and it doesn't take too kindly to being dismissed as an also-ran.

Digital Television Network - a consortium put together by International CableTel, the US-owned company which controls several franchises in the UK - insists that it is very much at the races with a proposal which is much rounder and richer than BDB's, which is based largely on channels that are already available on either satellite or cable. "Ours are all new programme and data services," says DTN's chief executive, Jeremy Thorp. "Does it [BDB] offer anything new?"

Of the 20 channels that DTN plans to operate, four will be new ones which it would fund itself: The Money Channel, the Knowledge Network, the British Sports Channel and a local programme service called Metro TV (starting off in Manchester). Moreover - and this is where it seeks to really distinguish itself from the rival bidder - it is also proposing to offer access to the Internet and a range of data services via the TV. "A very powerful part of our proposition is to take the information superhighway into every living room in this country," says Mr Thorp.

In its submission to the Independent Television Commission, DTN emphasises its commitment to make a multimedia network available to the masses at affordable prices. "As people's ability to access and process information increases, a common concern is that we will become a society of information haves and have-nots," it argues. "We believe that digital terrestrial television can help democratise the information society."

The paper cites market research which suggests that the public's interest in digital television increases when they are told about the fast, relevant and easy-to-use data services which it could make possible.

So, why is BDB's proposal the only one which is being talked about? Mr Thorp, a 35-year-old Yorkshireman, insists he isn't surprised or cheesed off. "Obviously it's a great story when the dominant broadcasting forces in Britain suddenly all come together," he says. "But as people absorb a lot more of the facts and not just the hype, they'll get very interested in what we have to say."

Even if the Great British public can't be persuaded to tune into the details of DTN's proposals, the people it really has to convince are the members of the Independent Television Commission. Guided by its full-time officials, this body will mull over all applications and judged each according to six criteria:

coverage of UK population proposed;

speed of roll-out of service;

ability to establish/maintain service;

appeal of programme services to variety of tastes and interests;

plans to promote/assist acquisition of decoders by viewers;

the plan drawn up by applicants to ensure fair and effective competition in their dealings with providers of programmes/additional services.

DTN's chief executive believes it "stacks up well" against these six criteria. On the content front, it is offering much more than BDB, whose package consists of 15 subscription channels (12 basic and three premium services: Sky Movies, the Movie Channel and Sky Sports). DTN has undertaken to roll out its service to 71 per cent of the population by 1 May 1998 and to reach 87 per cent by the end of 1999.

CableTel can point to achievements on the cable front. It had a good final quarter in 1996, increasing penetration of both its television and telephony services by more than the industry average. It is boosted by the technology expertise of NTL, the engineering and transmitter arm of the old Independent Broadcasting Authority, the only body with direct experience of digital transmission in Britain.

Mr Thorp was managing director of NTL before immersing himself in this DTT bid. The group has named James Gatward as its chairman, and told the ITC who its director of programmes is to be. The most it will tell the rest of us at this stage is that he/she is the chief executive of a well- known TV company, which is more forthcoming than BDB has been prepared to be at this stage.

But hasn't DTN's bid been severely weakened by the fact that the BBC has jumped into bed with the rival bidder? BDB has certainly been making much of the fact that the corporation and its transatlantic pay TV partner Flextech have agreed to give it first option on the digital services they are jointly developing: BBC Horizon, BBC Style/Showcase and BBC One TV, a sound-and-vision version of Radio 1. They are believed to have endorsed BDB because it offered an attractive carriage deal - 35p per subscriber per month for each channel carried.

DTN also courted senior BBC executives, but didn't match this deal. It will re-open negotiations, however, if its bid succeeds. "When we are granted control of the three multiplexes, the BBC will want to get their channels on to our network," says Mr Thorp. The BBC has stressed that it would want to do business with DTN if it succeedsn

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