Torin Douglas: BBC faces resistance to proposed digital services

Plans for new BBC digital television services have received fervent opposition from leading cable, satellite and digital broadcasters

As Greg Dyke approaches his first anniversary as director-general of the BBC, he faces two bare-knuckle fights with the Corporation’s commercial opponents.

On January 22, ITV brings back News at Ten, setting up a head-on battle with the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News on at least three nights a week. At the same time, the Government is about to ask the Corporation’s rivals to comment on the BBC’s plans for new digital channels – and we already know their answer. They don’t like them.

The BBC proposals, unveiled by Greg Dyke in the same speech as the plans for a Ten O’Clock News, include turning BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge into BBC3 and BBC4, launching two new children’s channels and developing five digital radio networks. Seven of the leading cable, satellite and digital broadcasters have already complained to the culture secretary Chris Smith – hoping to repeat their success of 18 months ago when the commercial lobby thwarted the BBC’s plans for a digital licence fee. In a letter sent just before Christmas they demanded a meeting about the criteria the Government will use to judge whether or not they should be allowed.

The letter was signed by BSkyB’s chief executive Tony Ball; Telewest chief executive Adam Singer; Turner Broadcasting Europe UK managing director Mick Buckley; MTV Networks Europe chief executive Brent Hansen; Artsworld chief executive John Hambley; Nickelodeon UK general manager Paul Lindley; and Discovery Networks Europe managing director Joyce Taylor. (Though, significantly, not Granada, Carlton and ONdigital, which were important players in the campaign against the digital licence fee.)

At that stage the criteria had not even been published, which was why the Magnificent Seven of multi-channel television were beginning to get edgy: “We are writing to register our strongest concern at the lack of any finalised criteria on which these new services will be approved or rejected. The BBC’s proposed new services will, if approved, have a wide-reaching, long-term impact on commercial broadcasters and the creative industries as a whole.”

The letter-writers were concerned that Mr Smith was going to “rubber-stamp” the Corporation’s proposals: “We know that plans for BBC3, BBC4 and the children’s services are continuing apace. We are concerned that the BBC is behaving as if it had been given tacit consent to develop their plans for new services.” Privately, they cite reports – including a full-page Mirror profile – of the £250,000 contract for Christopher Price, presenter of the BBC Choice entertainment show Liquid News, which is expected to be a mainstay of BBC3. And this week, details of the new children’s channels emerged in a Guardian interview with Nigel Pickard, the BBC’s new head of children’s programmes. Pickard defended the Corporation’s advanced state of planning. “This is called preparation” he said. “Once we’re given the green light we want to get on the air quickly.” Note the word “Once” and not “If”.

By the time the pieces appeared, the Culture Department’s criteria had finally crept out, courtesy of a Parliamentary Question, neither publicised in a press release nor downloaded onto the department’s all-singing, all-dancing website.

The document made the commercial broadcasters no happier. The radio companies were first off the mark, saying it raised more questions than it answered: “Insufficient time (20 days) is allowed for the commercial sector to respond” said the Commercial Radio Companies Association. “The tests the new service must meet are unclear…the information the BBC must provide is inadequate, making it difficult for other broadcasters to assess its impact on their own business and for the Secretary of State to make an informed decision….”

Of course that won’t stop them all responding, once they see the detail of the BBC proposals. However, unlike the campaign against a digital licence fee, the ITV companies and ONdigital now have a different agenda. Stuart Prebble, ONdigital’s chief executive, has actually welcomed the BBC’s plans, saying that – like ITV2 – they should help accelerate the take-up of integrated digital TV sets.

Another name missing from the Seven Samurais’ letter was Disney TV UK’s managing director Paul Robinson. He remains one of the staunchest opponents of the BBC’s proposed children’s channels and will make that position clear in the weeks ahead.

Indeed, he has come up with the most novel argument for the BBC to alter its plans. Like Prebble’s, it’s about how the Government can ensure the whole country eventually switches to digital TV. With 14 commercial channels already aimed at children, Robinson says the child audience is well-catered for by digital TV. He maintains the BBC has a duty to provide programming for the demographic groups the digital market does not cater for – such as the over-55s. Only a quarter of over-55s subscribe to pay-TV, whereas over half the under-15s live in a multi-channel home.

I can’t see it changing Dyke’s mind, or Smith’s, but it may help the commercial lobby put up a stronger fight.v

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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