Ever since the Independent Television Commission announced the
names of the two applicants for the three commercial digital terrestrial
TV multiplexes last week, it has become increasingly clear that many top
media players have been wrong-footed, excluded from the plans of Michael
Green (Carlton) Sam Chisholm (BSkyB) and Gerry Robinson (Granada), with
potentially devastating long-term consequences.
The conventional media wisdom had been that BSkyB would crush DTT
because of its iron grip over digital satellite-delivered services,
which offer a superior number of channels - 200 against 20 or so.
Whether you were a hard-headed businessman (Lord Hollick) or a member of
the ’stop BSkyB from running the world’ faction, the conclusion was the
same. DTT was probably a dead duck.
What was overlooked, but became apparent as the bidders went public, is
that the switch to digital will engulf all forms of media delivery and
communications systems. It is too big for any one player to completely
control. Digital signals, whether from transmitters, satellites or from
cable heads, are similar.
Making or adapting receivers and TV sets to handle the range of services
requires no great technology leap. Some of the fuss during 1996 over who
controls the digital gateway has been just hot air. Hence the decision
by BSkyB and Carlton and Granada - ITV’s two largest companies - to join
forces in the most favoured consortium, British Digital Broadcasting
(BDB) with the BBC giving limited but crucial programme support. Unlike
ITV or Channel 5, these licences are free. The fear of those left on the
sidelines is that they could represent an amazing bargain, long
But there are aspects of the BDB application which make my heart
It is an attempt to carve up the future, to control competition, rather
than letting in any new blood. It gives Carlton and Granada a catch-up
route in the subscription TV race, but confirms BSkyB’s pole position
when it comes to premium pay services and subscription management. The
channels grouped in the BDB application are predictably doled out to the
participants. A depressing example: Sky News will only broadcast during
the daytime in this new DTT arrangement. Why? So as not to disrupt the
BBC’s pet digital project, the 24-hour news channel. Hardly a signal of
a new dawn is it?
I hope that it does not sweep all three multiplexes, and that the second
applicant - Digital Television Network, backed by International
Cabletel, with ITN and Turner offering their product - gains a multiplex
Its application is more focussed on exploiting digital’s new potential,
such as fast screen data services. Still, what a turnaround for the ITC
to find that, after all, it has the luxury of making choices.