There is a huge political storm blowing around the key media business
issue of the moment: who is going to have the monopoly in providing the
set top boxes viewers will need to receive digital transmissions when
they start next year.
The debate has reached near hysteria with bossy columnists fuelling the
mistaken belief that Murdoch has been handed a carte blanche by the
Government because rivals, such as the BBC, have not been guaranteed a
free ride. In fact, BSkyB is so far from getting its own way it has put
its digital satellite launch plans on hold. This hysteria is set to
continue as the final round of consultation on conditional access
regulations takes place.
Yet much criticism has missed the point. BSkyB may be in a favourable
position in the opening phase of digital broadcasting, because it
currently dominates pay-TV. But the switch to digital opens up so many
more opportunities, way beyond couch potato entertainment, that no-one
will be able to control it, even if they wished to. To see it as an
issue predominantly affecting how TV is distributed to the home is quite
At the other end of the game, programme-making is being revolutionised
with light-weight cameras used by video journalists and cheap computer-
based editing. On Sunday I even saw ISDN lines for high-speed
communications being advertised to the mass market by BT in the middle
of Moll Flanders.
There will be fights between the broadcasters over who controls the
gateway into the home, but with cable, telephony, satellite and,
eventually, digital terrestrial signals all jostling for distribution,
this cannot lead to a lasting monopoly. Makers of TV sets and computers
will start including interfaces into their sets as a matter of course.
That is why the Government, sensibly, has given regulator OFTEL a
pivotal role of ensuring all players have fair terms of access to the
set top box. It sees the future expansion of digital transmissions as
having more in common with the UK’s advanced telecoms market than a
world framed for the comfort of a licence-fee drip-fed BBC. Would anyone
want to return to the 1970s when a state-owned telephone company rented
everyone hand sets and mobiles were for moguls?
What those in the media should be worrying about is content: how to
exploit the new age. The screen quality of video tape is incredibly
high. The gap between professional broadcast standards and amateur is
narrow. TV programmes and video releases can be made at a fraction of
their historic price, and are happily broadcast if the subject is hot.
With more channels there will be huge growth in sponsored programmes and
events desperate for broadcast coverage will offer to do it themselves.
Let’s have intelligent, tough regulation. And embrace change.