BSkyB’s involvement converts digital doubters into preachers

In the bids for a DTT licence, BDB – the BSkyB, Carlton and Granada consortium – offers the right mix of brands to make digital succeed. By Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

So, digital terrestrial television (DTT) will happen after all. And one of the three bids for DTT licences has come from an unbeatable-looking combination of Britain’s three biggest commercial broadcasters – Carlton, Granada and BSkyB – with the BBC numbered among the suppliers of 15 channels.

One of the bids, from the Welsh fourth channel S4C, was simply for a tiny part of the available digital space. The second, from the Carlton-Granada-Sky consortium known as British Digital Broadcasting (BDB), and the third, from Digital Television Network (DTN), are for almost all the digital capacity reserved for new commercial services.

But the DTN bid looks a trifle flaky, and its programming distinctly lacklustre. Where BDB offers Sky Sports 1 as a premium service, DTN offers a channel of minority sports of the sort not normally televised. Where BDB has two Sky movie channels (again, at a premium) and half a dozen channels of drama and entertainment, DTN has one service of pay-per-view movies and sport, and a commitment to serve “small audiences with specific interests” – which doesn’t sound like the best way to drum up consumer interest in a new mass medium.

But if rumour is to be believed, BDB only came together as a consortium within the past few weeks – and previously all three of its shareholders have been decidedly lukewarm about DTT, or even downright damning.

BSkyB has its own plans for 200 digital channels to be launched later this year. Granada, a BSkyB shareholder, has recently launched several pay channels on satellite.

And I well remember a conversation at an industry dinner a few years ago with Carlton’s Nigel Walmsley, during which he spelt out all the obvious arguments against DTT – starting with the question of why anybody should be interested in a system which offers even fewer channels than existing analogue satellite TV, let alone digital satellite.

Last Friday, I stood outside the Independent Television Commission listening to Walmsley explain why the system against which he had once so devastatingly argued now looked like a goer.

The fact that the 5 million households most interested in extra television choice have already subscribed to cable or satellite became an opportunity rather than a problem.

It meant there were 16 million potential subscribers still to play for – many of whom, Walmsley claimed, had expressed an interest in multichannel television if it were simple to use, high quality and competitively priced.

DTT, he maintained, is just such a simple system. You don’t need a dish or a cable connection, and it can be received on existing aerials (including set-top aerials on portables, which means it’s not limited to the main TV set in the house) – though, like other forms of multi-channel television, it does require a special set-top box.

What Walmsley can’t say, as spokesman for a company in which Sky is a substantial shareholder, is that cable and satellite have a rather naff, poor quality image in certain quarters. Research carried out for the BBC in the past suggests that people who would not subscribe to Sky might stump up for a service which appeared to offer “quality” programmes – and that brand names like Granada and the BBC (if not, alas, Carlton) connote quality.

Sky’s involvement in the consortium has the great advantage of ensuring a “common digital platform”, more or less. In issuing specifications to set-top box manufacturers, BDB and BSkyB will ensure that DTT and digital satellite boxes are as compatible as they can be – and that the addition of a simple plug-in module will enable receivers for one system to get the programmes of the other.

That way there’ll be no silly “box wars” between rival systems, which would simply serve to confuse the public. Sky might have tried to kill off DTT. Instead, it’s joining in – though BDB will have its own subscriber management system, separate from Sky’s.

BSkyB’s move more or less ensures that DTT will succeed. The company gives up the short-term advantage which its monopoly of programme rights gives it, but positions itself in the long term to succeed whatever technology flourishes.

And DTT, according to some analysts, will flourish. The consultant CDG reckons that, within five years of launch, there’ll be 1 million homes capable of receiving DTT, and 9 million after a decade.

BDB’s licence bid is impressive but there is one omission, and that’s interactive data services. DTN has some extensive plans for interactive data services. So does BSkyB for its digital satellite service. So, crucially, do the cable companies, who believe interactivity is their trump card in a forthcoming digital battle.

In the US, cable companies are gearing up for a multibillion dollar investment in the necessary technology. I will shortly explain why.

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