Torin Douglas: Auntie’s blooming, but not everyone is pleased

The ever-expanding BBC must be careful not to aggrieve the commercial stations if there is to be any agreement on digital terrestrial television, says Torin Douglas

Y ou can see why the commercial sector is so upset at the BBC. Not only are most things going the corporation’s way at the moment – income, audiences, awards, Ofcom – but it’s constantly launching new ventures at a time when most commercial media companies are retrenching.

Take the past week. Last Monday, at the Advertising Association lunch, BBC director general Greg Dyke spelled out his blueprint for digital terrestrial television (DTT), following the collapse of ITV Digital. He sees a free-to-air service as the only logical way forward since there are already two pay-TV digital platforms and many viewers don’t want pay-channels anyway. But the commercial terrestrial channels view this as a BBC “land-grab” and discussions on a joint rescue plan for DTT seem to be floundering.

On Tuesday, the BBC launched a pioneering – but controversial – initiative with the company behind TiVo, the personal video recorder. The machines automatically started recording a BBC2 programme, Dossa and Joe, and displayed a new section on the menu, labelled “A Must See from the BBC”. It has caused a furore on the “TiVo Community Forum” website, with users debating the merits and morals of sponsored programme selection.

On Thursday, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell announced that the BBC had applied for approval to launch a “Digital Curriculum service”. It wants to invest &£150m of licence fee money in online educational material, as the backbone of the Government’s own “Curriculum Online” scheme. The plans are opposed by media and software companies which already develop and sell such material. They say the BBC’s free offerings could stifle innovation and cost them millions of pounds in lost sales.

On Monday, BBCi, the BBC’s new media division, announced ambitious plans for the World Cup, using all platforms – digital terrestrial, satellite and cable and online. It will deliver multistream video channels offering alternative live games and commentaries, highlights, interviews and press conferences, as well as extra news, statistics and analysis, and talk forums. Meanwhile, ITV’s plans for enhanced coverage have been stymied by a failure to agree terms with Sky Digital.

All this comes on top of other new BBC ventures this year, most of which have been opposed by commercial rivals. In digital television, it has already launched two children’s channels, CBBC and Cbeebies (opposed by Nickelodeon and Disney), and BBC4 (opposed by Artsworld), while still awaiting Government permission to relaunch BBC Choice as BBC3 (opposed by Channel 4). The long-awaited Government inquiry into BBC News 24 (opposed by Sky News) has just begun.

In digital radio, it has launched 5 Live Sports Extra and 6 Music, with 1Xtra, Network Z (a speech network) and the revamped Asian Network to come (each opposed by one commercial radio network or another). The BBC website is constantly expanding and new developments this month include the World Cup site, a major new BBC Music portal and One Music, a Radio1 site for aspiring bands. And BBCi has just launched its own search engine, prompting yet more angst from commercial rivals, not least because it is partly based on Google’s highly effective software.

To add insult to injury – as the commercial companies see it – the Communications Bill, which began its parliamentary scrutiny last week, still keeps much of the BBC at arm’s length from the single regulator Ofcom. How annoying is that?

It cuts little ice with the commercial sector that the BBC is simply doing what the Government asked it to do. It was given an above-inflation increase in the licence fee specifically to develop new digital services and encourage the nation to invest in digital TV and go online. The arguments were clear: only by offering viewers a portfolio of strong free-to-air channels, as well as pay ones, would reluctant multichannel viewers be persuaded to go digital. Only by having a “trusted guide” in the form of the BBC would reluctant computer users be persuaded to partake of the Web, and all its information and educational potential.

Of course no one knew when the BBC was allocated these tasks that the dot-com revolution was a bubble about to burst, or that the advertising boom of the past ten years was about to end. Indeed, it’s not so long since the papers were suggesting that the BBC was in perpetual decline, unable to afford top sport and top stars, its dramas consistently beaten by ITV’s.

But the problems of the commercial sector have served to highlight the BBC’s change of fortunes. The perception of a rampant BBC, wading into all parts of the forest like one of the stars of Walking With Beasts, is gathering pace. And that’s not helpful for the BBC – or the Government – at a time when the Communications Bill is working its way through Parliament and a rescue plan for DTT is needed as a matter of urgency.

The BBC insists its ambitions are strictly limited, and that, unlike commercial companies, it must ask the Government’s permission before launching new ventures like BBC3 and the Digital Curriculum. But if the terrestrial channels are to agree on a way forward for DTT, it must not be seen as a BBC takeover.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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