Raymond Snoddy: Jowell draws a line in the shifting sands of television

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The Independent Online

Her rather conservative bet is being placed at the very moment of maximum uncertainty, when one technological device after another threatens to fragment television audiences and undermine the financial foundations of commercial broadcasting.

Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) may be a great convenience to the viewer but those who have them can construct their own television schedules and fast-forward through the ads or even cut them out entirely.

Think then of connecting such a device to IPTV - television over broadband connections - and viewers will be able to pull in a limitless number of programmes of their choice from all over the world.

BT plans to use broadband to launch on-demand television later this year before the current BBC royal charter even runs out.

At the same time, broadcasting is starting to go walkabout, on mobile phones and video iPods and similar devices. Podcasting will continue to grow.

Where in this swirl of competition and choice, speeding up all the time, will there remain a place for a organisation like the BBC funded by a compulsory licence fee?

Luckily all change is not heading in precisely the same direction. The launch of high definition television by the BBC and Sky in time for the World Cup finals in Germany will start to move things back into the large screen in the living room.

With programmes such as Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing the BBC has also demonstrated it is still able to attract a family audience. And there is no reason to suspect large audiences will not continue to be attracted to series such as Bleak House or Planet Earth.

Nobody can predict how television will develop by 2016. But a reasonable guess is most people will use the latest devices for added convenience while still watching a lot of television in the traditional manner.

It is precisely because broadcasting, and commercial broadcasting in particular, is facing such uncertainty that it is vital to have a properly funded public service broadcaster to make programmes that the market will increasingly be less inclined to produce.

A decently funded BBC also happens to be useful to the Government to implement and pay for its manifesto commitment to take the UK digital by 2012. After that, when everyone has access to a multitude of channels and on-demand programmes and films, the pressure to move to a voluntary subscription service could start to grow.

By then the only counter argument that the BBC will be able to deploy is that it is making programmes of the highest quality, unmatched by anyone else.

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