Digital TV row threatens to mar the Bottomley charm offensive

Broadcasters are rubbishing the Heritage Secretary’s proposals for granting DTT licenses. Can Mrs Bottomley rescue the situation? asks Torin Douglas

The love affair between Virginia Bottomley and the broadcasters, which began so promisingly in Cambridge, is already heading for the rocks. Despite their unusually warm words for each other at the Royal Television Society convention, the relationship seems set to founder over the vexed question of digital terrestrial television (DTT).

Yet things were going so well. When the Heritage Secretary announced her plans for DTT last month, they were greeted with cautious approval on all sides. When she made her first speech to the TV moguls, at the RTS, she could hardly have been more enthusiastic about their industry and its potential for enriching the lives and coffers of the nation.

“Television is a force for good,” she assured them. How she wished she had the time to watch every episode of Middlemarch, Inspector Morse and Drop The Dead Donkey. Her obligatory reference to taste and decency was as muted as it could have been – without even the predicted condemnation of Europorn channels like TV Erotica (only a cynic would suggest she was saving that for the Conservative Party conference). And the prospect of British television taking its programmes to the world was one she would do her utmost to assist.

The moguls were duly appreciative. After the harsh words they’d received at Cambridge from previous broadcasting ministers, such as Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Baker, and the recent studied indifference of Stephen Dorrell, the Bottomley charm offensive – coupled with her knowledgeable replies in the question-and-answer session – came as a welcome relief.

Yet within 24 hours they were queuing up to rubbish her department’s proposals for DTT. “Disastrous”, “overcomplicated” and “a disincentive to investment”, were some of the phrases that tripped forth. The kindest verdict was that of the BBC’s director-general John Birt, who suggested the crucial role of the multiplex provider needed “reconsideration”. More robustly, Pearson chairman Greg Dyke said the proposals, as put forward, didn’t “have a prayer”.

Bottomley had left by this stage, but her civil servants were still there, and they will surely have relayed to her the industry’s deep reservations – not to say fundamental opposition – to the White Paper. If not, she can shortly read them herself as responses are due in by October 6.

Part of the problem is the arrangements the Heritage Department has put forward for awarding the DTT licences, which are not only complex but ill-conceived. The bidding process requires consortia of broadcasters, TV manufacturers and transmission companies to apply to run one or more multiplexes, each containing at least three channels – in the knowledge that five of the channels are guaranteed for BBC1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

As I suggested last month, in order to make this system work, the Independent Television Commission will either have to indulge in marriage-broking after the bids are in, or carve things up beforehand to ensure the bidders apply in the right groups for each of the six multiplexes. Otherwise, any group which included one or more of the terrestrial channels would be guaranteed a licence, regardless of other factors.

The broadcasters have raised another important objection – that under this system the channel spectrum will be managed not by broadcasters and programme-makers but by transmission engineers. Barry Cox, director of the ITV Association, told the convention it was as though NTL (the privatised transmitter network) decided what went out on ITV and Channel 4. And Birt said the multiplexes had to be editorially-driven because it was the programme services that would determine whether or not viewers bought DTT sets.

But the more fundamental concern is whether DTT has a future at all, when it is limited to providing between 18 and 30 channels. For digital satellite and digital cable television offer the prospect of hundreds or thousands of services.

BSkyB’s David Elstein asked:”Who is going to pay 500 or more for a digital terrestrial decoder when they can get more channels on analogue satellite for 99?” And BT’s Bruce Bond said current fibre-optic experiments showed 5,500 channels could be sent down a single fibre.

Yet switching the five terrestrial channels from analogue to digital transmission would bring great benefits, if only someone were prepared to pay for it. Not only would there be more TV channels, bringing higher quality pictures and sound, but it would release the analogue frequencies for other uses, such as mobile phones.

Speakers from the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV suggested that to give business the confidence to invest in DTT, the Government must set a deadline for switching off the analogue transmissions – as happened with the old VHF transmitters, after most people had switched to UHF colour sets. But politicians are naturally wary of rendering millions of TV sets obsolete when many of them could still be functioning perfectly well.

Will Mrs Bottomley oblige? And will she rethink her multiplex plans? If not, it could be the end of a beautiful friendship. v

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