Can the slow-moving BBC survive in the brave new world? Mathew Horsman reports

The digital age has dawned, and there is no looking back. If the BBC gets its way, the public service broadcaster will be the undisputed market leader in the brave new world. Its blueprint for a digital future posits a world of mind-boggling choice, high quality and technological brilliance in which the Beeb will be Britain's digital diva, its best and its brightest.

Yesterday's announcement was calculated to prove what is far from certain: that the BBC, a public-service broadcaster financed by licence fee payers, has a role in a fragmented, highly competitive broadcasting environment.

The BBC has very little choice. As John Birt, director-general, conceded yesterday, the corporation is stuck between a rock and hard place. "We could of course ignore the new technologies, let our beards grow, and carry on regardless," he said. That option, he understands, is not sustainable. Conversely, the BBC could plunge wholeheartedly into the risky commercial TV sector. But that would put severe pressure on the licence fee: why should viewers pay a compulsory levy if the BBC is merely one commercial broadcaster among many?

The answer is that the BBC will remain a public service broadcaster, but it will selectively engage in the digital revolution. To survive, it must. By its own admission, 50 per cent of UK homes will be receiving multi-channel services within 10 years. The share of the traditional broadcasters - the Beeb and the commercial channels - could drop to 65 per cent of the TV audience. While the BBC's guaranteed income will stay more or less flat, the revenues of new-style broadcasters, led by the satellite and cable companies, are set to grow robustly.

This is not the distant future. Digital radio services have already been launched. Digital satellite TV has made its appearance in the US and in France.

By the turn of the decade, cable operators, too, will offer digital services. Even telecoms companies will soon offer entertainment programming over their networks. Broadcasters from the ITV companies to the new Channel 5 are planning to launch digital services. In such a fragmented environment, what can the BBC, often derided as a slow-moving, bloated enterprise, offer?

Yesterday, it promised to offer wide-screen broadcasts with CD-quality sound. BBC viewers would be offered "expanded" services, for free. For instance, an episode of EastEnders would run, as usual, in the early evening. But viewers would be able to use their remote controls to call up information about previous plot developments. Or viewers of Bookmark, the literary programme, might want to follow a documentary on Samuel Beckett with a performance of Waiting for Godot.

All this is made possible through the magic of digitisation, which reduces transmissions into a series of ones and noughts. The result is a far more efficient use of scarce spectrum capacity.

The BBC will also launch a 24-hour news service and a clutch of themed channels, offering specialist viewing of, say, arts programmes or favourites from the Beeb's archives. With the exception of the themed channels, all this would be "free-to-air" to any viewer with a "decoder", the black box that sits on top of the television set.

The services are part of what is called digital terrestrial television (or DTT), which the Government hopes to see launched by early 1998. The BBC will also seek to offer its digital services to digital satellite subscribers - those who take Murdoch's Sky. Ultimately, BBC pay services could be delivered in a range of ways, including cable and even the telephone network.

To pay for all this, the BBC hopes to expand its commercial income, from publishing, programme sales and overseas subscription services. In the most recent financial year, the BBC earned about pounds 300m from its commercial activities. That compares to pounds 1.8bn generated by the licence fee. Bob Phillis, the deputy director- general and the head of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm, aims to increase commercial income threefold by the year 2005.

Additional money is expected to come from yet another round of cuts at the Beeb, increased borrowing and from the proceeds of an intended sale of the corporation's transmission services. Within three years, it hopes to take another 15 per cent out of costs. Productivity would have to rise because the new digital services would consume more output. Whatever the digital world holds for the consumer, it is going to mean harder work for those left at the BBC.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ICT Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified ...

DT Design and Technology Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently for ...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienc...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on