Was that really the newly liberated David Elstein defending his old paymaster at BSkyB?

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David Elstein, the chief executive of Channel 5, was formerly known as the "acceptable face" of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, where he acted as a kind of executive PR. In reasoned interviews on television, in backroom offices in Whitehall and on panels up and down the country, Mr Elstein was all sweetness and light, the voice of reason, the very antithesis of the antipodean acolytes of the Murdoch mob. Oh yeah, and he was also "head of programming".

He must have been heartily relieved to arrive at Channel 5, where he is truly in charge. No more would he have to toe the Sky line, defending the interests of that "digital dictator", Mr Murdoch (as another newspaper dubbed him).

So what's this? Was that really the newly liberated Elstein speaking at a conference last week, still defending Murdoch and BSkyB? In a speech that touched on digital television, Elstein argued that Murdoch had no intention of dominating pay-TV in the UK. Indeed, said Elstein, thanks to "Sky's massive investment in programming and marketing" the struggling cable industry had actually been helped to grow. Moreover, he said that any suggestion Murdoch would try to dominate the digital world through his early launch of digital satellite was wide of the mark. Indeed, it was in the interests of Sky to ensure that his new digital set-top box was actually compatible with digital terrestrial TV, the government's favoured platform. "If not," he said, "Sky runs the risk that consumers will delay purchasing a box until digital terrestrial models are marketed that can pick up digital satellite."

But the truth is, Elstein said, warming to his theme, that "making every decoder box compulsorily multi-operational" (as many commentators, not least our own Polly Toynbee, have argued) is simply "costly and unnecessary". It would be like "forcing every motorcycle to have a side-car".

Far be it from me to argue the technical points with someone who knows so intimately the strategy deployed by BSkyB in the UK, but does this really sounds like the views of someone who "holds no brief for Sky or Murdoch"?

Mr Elstein spent no time at all discussing the political issues of digital television - particularly the need for regulation of the gateway, and the requirement that dominant positions in the marketplace be vigorously fought. These were some of the points made in a series of articles published recently in The Independent.

You could argue that the close ties between Channel 5 and Sky (they are talking about joint programming as well as analogue capacity on satellite for the soon-to-be-launched service) are the main reason for Elstein's pro-Sky comments.

But that does not excuse the fact that he broke some basic rules of courtesy - a virtual crime from a man normally so above gratuitous insults or personal attacks. He said that Polly Toynbee's knowledge of digital television "could be comfortably contained on the back of a postage stamp", adding, "The Independent's campaign has mostly served to damage its own credibility."

I wonder, given the tone of his remarks, just whose credibility is damaged. Elstein is much respected in media circles, not least for his impeccable manners, his even temper, and his preference for debate over name-calling and for intellectual exchange rather than verbal fisticuffs. What a shame he has stooped to this.

The brouhaha over pay-per-view football last week - with some clubs claiming they wanted to move "as early as possible" to pay-as-you-go broadcasts and BSkyB insisting no discussions had yet taken place - served at least to bring into the open the most significant trend in British broadcasting bar none.

Pay-per-view TV is going to make some people billions. The question is: who?

BSkyB has relied on its exclusive broadcast rights to live Premier League football to power its spectacular growth. It earns the equivalent of pounds 8 a second out of its pay-TV operations, thanks particularly to its sport and film offerings.

BSkyB is also a great believer in pay-per-view, which it has pioneered in the UK with two boxing matches. It would be pleased to offer the Premiership a separate PPV deal, in addition to its subscription contract.

But why should the clubs necessarily stick with Sky? Certainly BSkyB made Premier League football work in this country, through its initial investments, its relentless marketing and its broadcasting innovations (better camera coverage, better commentary). But the real value of football is in the rights, and these are held by the clubs themselves. Many other broadcasters (a handful of ITV companies, for a start) would be happy to do deals with the clubs on pay-per-view, perhaps as the main offering on the planned digital terrestrial television service, for which bids are now being solicited by the Independent Television Commission.

But there is the little matter of the exclusive contract between BSkyB and the League, as both sides testily pointed out last week in response to the fresh round of newspaper stories on pay-per-view.

As this column suggested last week, however, there must be at least a chance that the existing contract will be torn up at the insistence of the Restrictive Practices Court, which is reviewing the terms of the deal at the behest of the Office of Fair Trading. In that event, clubs will be free to strike their own deals on pay-per-view, and will seek the best terms they can get - from BSkyB or anyone else.

In the end, the digital revolution may end up being a far more democratising influence on British broadcasting than many had first thought: greater choice, more competition, and a far more direct relationship between the consumer's desires and the cultural "products" he or she buys

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