This puts a question mark over the prediction, by the BBC's director-general, John Birt, that while BBC audiences will fall from about 43 per cent, the current share, as channels proliferate, it should be able to hold on to a 30 per cent share of viewing by the end of the century, a figure which would still justify a universal licence fee.
The research, carried out in 36 areas in October after the relaunch of BSkyB and a range of new channels, shows that BBC 1 gained a 19.9 per cent share and BBC 2 3.3 per cent in cable homes, compared to 22.6 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively in 1992.
ITV was most watched, with 29.3 per cent, down from 30.5 per cent in the previous year; with Sky One at 9.6 per cent in third place, after BBC 1; Sky Movies Plus, the pay channel (6.8 per cent) fourth; the Movie Channel (6.2 per cent) fifth; and Channel 4 (5.4 per cent), sixth.
At present only about 500,000 homes have cable, but this is a 37 per cent increase in a year, and the numbers are continuing to expand rapidly. When combined with slower-growing satellite, homes with multi-channel TV exceed 3 million.
Overall, the four terrestrial channels took a 57.9 per cent share of viewing (61.4 per cent last year). Children have become addicted to the new channels: while ITV took a 27.8 per cent of viewing in the 2-15 age group, with BBC 1 second (16 per cent), the newly launched TNT Cartoon Network took 15.7 per cent, halving the Children's Channel share (7.2 per cent).
Jon Davey, ITC director of Cable and Satellite, said yesterday the BBC had experienced a larger percentage drop but it should be less vulnerable than ITV, which is bound to see its share of advertising revenue fragment.
The survey shows how lower income social groups, for whom the licence fee is a comparatively greater burden, are turning to the new entertainment channels.
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