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27 August 2001

The great television flop

Digital has come to a halt; steam telly is enjoying a resurgence. A good time, suggests David Cox, t

By David Cox

It is just a year since the BBC’s director general, Greg Dyke, announced that the future was digital. He explained that the days of mixed programming channels, such as BBC1 and BBC2, were drawing to a close. The corporation could no longer hope to enlarge viewers’ horizons by scheduling popular entertain- ment alongside higher things. Nor could it any more create national talking points by assembling large audiences for major programmes.

As digital, multichannel broadcasting gathered pace, people would increasingly seek out special-interest channels aligned to their particular tastes. So the BBC would have to expand its existing digital bridgehead to provide new digital TV and radio channels, each tailored to the needs of separate age, cultural, ethnic and interest groups. We were invited to applaud the far-sightedness of an organisation poised to become a world leader in the broadcasting technology of the future.

That was then, but what a difference a year makes. During 2001, the supposedly unstoppable digital broadcasting revolution has more or less ground to a halt. Certainly, 30 per cent of British households have subscribed to one of the digital TV systems currently provided by cable, satellite and digital terrestrial broadcasters. Unfortunately, this figure now stubbornly refuses to rise much further. Older people (the heaviest viewers) are watching less multichannel TV today than five years ago. The terrestrial digital platform, recently re-named ITV Digital, may soon have to close completely, and retailers now hardly bother to give shelf space to digital TV sets. Digital radios are virtually unobtainable.

Meanwhile, steam telly has had an unexpected resurgence. New formats such as Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? have reinvigorated the conventional channels. Such programmes have shown that mass audiences can still be assembled, and that a single programme can still dominate conversations in the bus queue. The recent Brass Eye on paedophilia demonstrated that old-style TV can even still prompt full-scale national debate on issues of public importance.

Sadly, the BBC’s conventional channels have contributed little to this renaissance. BBC1’s audience share has dropped to an all-time low, even though its schedule has embraced ever dumber fare, such as this summer’s Celebrity Sleepover, in which a D-list celeb spends the night with an “ordinary” family. The important public service programmes, like Brass Eye, all seem to be on Channel 4, rather than BBC2. Perhaps this is because £600m that could have boosted conventional programming, together with limitless management effort, have instead been sunk into unwatched digital services such as BBC Choice, BBC Knowledge and BBC News 24.

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Time, then, for a rethink at Broadcasting House? This year’s events suggest that Dyke’s original analysis was mistaken. Perhaps he failed to appreciate how most of us now view television. The box is no longer the focus of our lives. If a show such as Big Brother can grab our attention, we will watch it, particularly if everyone else is watching it, too. But as for all that specialised stuff, we just can’t be bothered to chase it. Nowadays, we have better things to do with our crowded lives. So is Dyke about to change tack?

On the contrary, he is eager to replace the BBC’s existing digital TV output with a new, much more costly, raft of channels, catering separately for pre-schoolers, school-age children, young adults, arts lovers and news addicts. He also wants to create a portfolio of digital radio stations, aimed at archive pop fans, speech enthusiasts, Asians, blacks and sport fiends. Can’t wait? Well, you’re paying anyway. In the first two years alone, these services would cost around £300m of licence-payers’ money that could otherwise be spent on mainstream programming.

Can no one halt this madness? Yes, actually. The government has the power to veto any new BBC service. Chris Smith, obliging as always, was expected to rubber-stamp Dyke’s digital plans straight after the election. But his successor as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, seems made of sterner stuff. Instead, she has extended the consultation period, and the representations have come aplenty. The commercial operators told Jowell it would be outrageous if their tiny audiences were to be attacked by me-too services funded from a compulsory tax.

Jowell apparently accepts much of the industry’s case. She is also asking why all licence-payers should pay for services that only a minority will be able to access. And she fears that Dyke wants to use the new digital channels as a dumping ground for such serious programmes as remain on BBC1 and BBC2, the better to wage his ratings war. As “a passionate personal believer” in public service broadcasting, Jowell cannot take this lying down.

Dyke has retaliated with a threat. Unless Jowell approves his plans in their full glory, he may pull the plug on the BBC’s whole digital effort. This, he hints, could be the last straw for the tottering digital industry. And if digital TV collapses, the government will lose the prospect of one day switching off the current analogue signals and then auctioning the frequencies over which they are transmitted. Not so long ago, this auction was seen as having the potential to raise as much as £50bn for the Treasury, money that could keep the government’s spending plans on track in the middle of a world recession.

Unfortunately for Dyke, this threat is looking emptier by the day. Digital TV has now proved such a flop that the target date for analogue switch-off (once 2010 at the latest) is quietly being extended. Before it dare do the deed, the government wants 95 per cent of us to have gone digital. On current form, switch-off may never happen. Certainly, it will deliver no bounty in time to save Gordon Brown’s bacon, whatever the BBC does, leaving Jowell free to do what she thinks is right.

If she chooses to block Dyke’s digital aspirations, the corporation’s current strategy will fall apart. The drive for digital is a central feature of the BBC’s long-standing ambition to expand the boundaries of its empire as far as possible, whatever effects this may have on its core functions. The scheme also involves a profusion of quasi-commercial projects, such as a joint venture with a property company to create a new “media village” in White City, west London. Meanwhile, the corporation’s mission to deliver programmes that innovate, educate, inform and promote our national culture continues to go by the board.

Correspondence between the government and the BBC on the new services has been described as “unpleasant”. Jowell’s decision is imminent. If it deals a death blow to the BBC’s digital plans, everyone except Dyke should cheer, because the upset might just prompt the rediscovery of our national broadcaster’s real purpose.

David Cox is a television producer

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