Chris Smith’s digital dilemma

Culture secretary Chris Smith’s speech to the Royal Television Society has been rightly hailed as another watershed for broadcast media.

In it, he not only signalled his determination to establish a timetable for the digital TV revolution, but implicitly accepted the need for regulatory reform – a matter, in the opinion of ITV, long overdue for consideration.

While acceptance of governmental responsibility is to be applauded, euphoria would be premature. Consummate politician that he is, Smith cloaked his rhetoric in phraseology that would have put the seer of Delphi to shame. Yes, a deadline for the definitive switch to digital frequencies had been set – it would be no later than 2010. By that time 95 per cent of the population would already have acquired an appropriate set and the other five per cent of voters, whoops, viewers, could be safely ignored.

Sounds plausible doesn’t it? Yet how sure can we be of this prediction? The uptake of digital TV may have beaten its target thus far, but early adopters are no guide to the behaviour of the more apathetic majority of the population. Nor can we be confident that the present deluge of free set-top boxes, which has done so much to stimulate the market, will continue. For one thing, it is extraordinarily expensive. For another, the commercial broadcasters who have borne the brunt of this cost are understandably miffed by the findings of the Government-sponsored Davies report, which if implemented would, they believe, stall uptake.

Put simply, what happens if only 90 per cent, or 80 per cent of the population have switched by 2010? Would Smith, or his successor, find it so easy to ignore ten or 20 per cent of voters (probably the most disadvantaged) and still throw the switch? No wonder he is vigorously canvassing rival digital broadcasters to launch a joint advertising campaign explaining digital TV to all viewers, rich and poor.

Whatever happens, Smith will now find it pretty difficult to wriggle out of a radical relaxation of ITV’s regulatory regime. As ITV’s chief executive Richard Eyre has pointed out, the logic of tying ITV regulation to that of the publicly-funded BBC has never been strong – and now grows weaker by the day. In an age of free-ranging, multichannel competition, why should ITV remain shackled to outmoded public service obligations on religious broadcasting, local news, documentaries and arts programmes?

see{storyLink (“MW199909230057”, “Smith calls on digital to unite”)};

see Torin Douglas,{storyLink(“MW199909230074″,”Why more free-to-air channels could speed up digital switch”)}

see Cover Story,{storyLink (“MW199909230078″,”Media maelstrom”)}

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