Will politics be the answer to the ITC’s digital dilemma?

John Birt, Michael Green, Greg Dyke, Alan Yentob: most of the big names in British broadcasting turned up for the Royal Television Society’s annual Fleming lecture last week, a lacklustre speech given by BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland.

John Birt, Michael Green, Greg Dyke, Alan Yentob: most of the big

names in British broadcasting turned up for the Royal Television

Society’s annual Fleming lecture last week, a lacklustre speech given by

BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland.



But the really sparky topic of nervous discussion over drinks, before

and after, was who is going to win licences for the three commercial

digital terrestrial multiplexes about to be announced. Everyone is on

tenterhooks.



The decision is crucial to the success of each broadcaster’s digital

plans.



This is because the commercial operator is expected to drive the

marketing for everyone, and perhaps subsidise the sale of set-top

digital decoder boxes, upon which the initial expansion to around 40

terrestrial free and pay channels starting at the end of 1998 depends

The Independent Television Commission is expected to make its decision

this week and go public next Monday - a month later than originally

anticipated. But there has been a little flurry of preparatory

announcements already on subsidiary regulatory issues, such as

electronic programme guides.



The ITC has spent five months weighing up the applications, from British

Digital Broadcasting (shareholders: Carlton, Granada, BSkyB, with BBC

programme backing) and Digital TV Network, backed by NTL/Cabletel, the

transmitter operator. And it finds itself on a very sticky wicket.



When the bids were announced it was widely assumed that BDB would take

the lot. It is fair to say that informed brokers and City opinion are

still inclined to bet that way. But DTN, through a dogged PR/lobbying

campaign by Hill and Knowlton, has made inroads into that assumption,

pointing to its plans for interactive data services, financial strength,

and the desirability of encouraging new media players.



But the most interesting input has come from Karel van Miert, the EU

competition commissioner, who has been consulted by the ITC. He warned

last month that there was a competition issue involving BDB: should the

same companies be allowed to dominate ITV, satellite, pay-TV and

digital, he asked? The question can also be put: has Britain’s new

Labour political climate any bearing on the outcome? Or is this where

Rupert Murdoch wants payback?



The ITC is above politics, of course. Nor is it allowed to broker a deal

giving DTN operating rights over, say, data services. But it could opt

for a fudge, and divide the multiplexes between the two sides: DTN has

allowed for that by applying separately for each of the three multiplex

frequencies. But favourite BDB seems to have blocked off that easy

option by submitting separate applications for one and three multiplexes

and not two. No wonder broadcasting’s grandees are reaching for the

drinks.



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