The BBC has managed to get its new channels, first UKTV, then News
24, off to a relatively successful start, even though they are
restricted to tiny cable audiences at present. Having witnessed the
dreadful birth pangs, I am pretty impressed by the relatively glitch
free way News 24 eventually made its public debut on Sunday evening.
But the question we need to think about is: what will happen to the
mainstream mixed interest channels, ITV, BBC1 and even BBC2 and Channel
4 in the longer run as more stranded and pay-per-view channels spring up
to cater for special interests. Up to now it has been received wisdom
that multichannel TV has failed to make the really significant impact on
viewing figures thought likely by even forecasters such as Zenith eight
years ago - outside of the sports and film market.
It has been easy to point to their crude audience shares, typically 0.1
per cent for services like Sky 2 and the SciFi Channel, and pronounce
that terrestrial TV, free-to-air, has a lot of life left in it. And so
it has, although the aggregated viewing figures, around 12 per cent of
total share, are beginning to look significant as the new channels edge
But I think the issue of the long-term is raised much more directly and
urgently by the BBC channels, and to a lesser extent by services such as
Granada Plus than, say, the arrival of CNN, Court TV in America or even
most of Sky’s services so far.
This is because the rolling news channel is so obviously part of the
existing BBC family that once it becomes as freely available as BBC2,
news junkies will be watching it in preference to the main BBC1 news
bulletins and Newsnight.
After all, its key presenters and correspondents are familiar BBC faces:
they may take off their jackets, but they haven’t lost their
And you can repeat the experience with the other new channels from the
BBC/Flextech deal: UKTV’s Horizons, Style and Arena - offer top quality
documentaries, lifestyle and arts and cultural programmes respectively,
with more to come. The top programme producers are starting to play
against their own mass market services, with their own programme
libraries and creative talent.
One of ITV’s principal architects, Sir Denis Forman, observed that
current mixed schedule channels were virtually dead on their feet. You
already witness the migration of children in multichannel homes to the
Cartoon Network. It seems clear that the main UK channels, even the BBC,
will inevitably become more focused on entertainment and popular drama
as multichannel TV becomes freely available.
Even if news doesn’t move out of prime time, it will go to the
And it will become far more populist, blending with the programmes