Slow digital uptake masks two-tier viewing patterns

An increase in channels is shaping different viewing behaviour patterns as people embrace technological change at different speeds, says Torin Douglas.

So News at Ten is coming back after all – albeit not on ITV. At the very least, there’ll be a News at Ten on ITN’s new 24-hour news channel, while the BBC has admitted it is considering switching its own BBC1 main bulletin from nine o’clock to ten o’clock, as part of a much wider shake-up prompted by the growth in multi-channel television.

Meanwhile the Independent Television Commission (ITC), in one of those decisions that could come to be seen as “very brave, minister”, has ordered ITV to move its Nightly News bulletin from 11 o’clock to an unspecified earlier time – probably 10.30. And the BBC governors have criticised BBC1 in their annual report, saying its programme quality was “variable” last year and, on average, not good enough.

Suddenly, it seems, the multi-channel revolution is beginning to bite on the UK’s two biggest channels and their relationship with their regulators, and – by extension – with the Government. Both the ITC and the BBC board of governors want to be seen to “act tough and accountable”, as officials prepare this autumn’s White Paper on the streamlining of regulation in the broadcasting and communication business. Both bodies fear they could be marginalised (or worse) if a new super-regulator is set up.

Yet they are also being urged by Government to loosen many of the long-standing shackles on programme-makers, because the growth in viewing choice makes such tight regulation less necessary. This process is spawning a mass of contradictions.

Last month, the ITC announced it was proposing to throw out many of the longest-standing restrictions on TV advertising, including those on escort agencies, religious appeals, and many medical categories. It is also under fire from the Daily Mail (and some others) for allowing Channel 5 to show nude game shows, erotic films and, it is claimed, to abandon most of the programmes proposals it put forward to win its licence. Yet, while presiding over this liberalisation of the airwaves, the ITC also wants to tell ITV when it should – or to be strictly accurate, should not – schedule one of its off-peak news bulletins.

Meanwhile, the BBC governors are contemplating the biggest shake-up in the organisation of BBC1 and BBC2, with the possible switch of many of the more intellectually demanding programmes from BBC1 to other channels (some available only to people with digital TV). And at the same time they are criticising the channel for not having enough high-quality programmes such as Walking With Dinosaurs. What lies behind this seeming schizophrenia among the regulators?

The answer is that broadcasting is changing extremely fast, but it’s affecting some viewers and listeners much more rapidly than others. We are seeing the growth of a two-tier broadcasting society – with the multi-channel “haves” starting to use their televisions (and their PCs and phones) in a totally different way from the four- or five-channel “have-nots”.

The broadcasters are having to adapt their output, and their regulators their rules, for the millions of viewers who now have dozens of digital channels, which they access through a sophisticated Electronic Programme Guide. Within a few months, many of these viewers will be storing hours of programmes in their set-top box to watch at a time of their own choosing.

This week, Sky News launched its interactive news service, giving viewers a choice of stories and pictures to access when they want, while ITN announced plans for its 24-hour news channel. It will be available from August across ten different broadcasting platforms, offering viewers and listeners a wide range of interactivity.

In a world with dozens of such specialist, genre-based channels, the fear is that mixed-schedule channels such as BBC1 and 2, ITV and Channel 4 will begin to satisfy no one. Genres of programming that used to be guaranteed a peaktime slot are being pushed to the margins of the schedules, because they don’t attract a large enough audience to justify a peak slot on a mainstream channel. Whereas, it is argued, if they were shown on a minority channel such as BBC2 or the new digital channels BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge, they could be shown in peaktime when many more viewers are available . The problem is that most viewers don’t have access to the digital channels.

Though Sky Digital has spread more rapidly than people forecast, the fact remains that after more than ten years of multi-channel television, two-thirds of UK homes have still not been tempted beyond their four- or five-channel terrestrial world. And though the Government hopes they will switch fairly soon – so it can turn off the analogue signals – the BBC and the ITC cannot abandon these viewers’ interests in the rush to embrace the digital future.

Yet nor can they ignore the technological developments that are bringing TV programmes to our PCs, palmtops and wireless application protocol phones, and all manner of specialist channels to the digital set-top box. Hence their attempts to face in two directions at once.

The dilemma also affects programme standards, as another broadcasting watchdog, the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), acknowledged this week when it published its annual review. The increase in sex-oriented programmes has helped to fuel a 44 per cent rise in complaints in the past two years, yet Channel 5’s nude game show with Keith Chegwin – which so inflamed the Daily Mail’s sub-editors and leader-writers – prompted just seven complaints. Many more complained about the BBC comedy, “Goodness Gracious Me”, which mocked the Eucharist and Channel 4’s documentary Hidden Love, about bestiality.

“Public tastes are changing” said BSC chairman Lord Holme. “The problem is that not everyone’s tastes change at the same speed.”

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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