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