How the big boys have got digital terrestrial TV sewn up

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.

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

term.



But there are aspects of the BDB application which make my heart

sink.



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

at least.



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.



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