Digital futures 

1 Jun 2002 0 tbs.pm/1813 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

So, ITV Digital has been closed. The administrators, Deloitte and Touche asked for interested consortia to put up bids for the company, with analysts suggesting that the company could be worth as little as £10 million.

But it wasn’t worth even that and closed without ceremony on 30 April. So what happens now?

ITV Digital

Well, if a successful bidder had been found, then the service could have continued with minimal fuss and disruption. But no knight in shining armour appeared and the remains of the company will be broken up and sold in pieces to help to pay of creditors.

But what about Digital Terrestrial itself? What will happen to the platform?

Looking at the potential options for the platform, one possible option would be for the 3 Multiplex licences won by ONdigital, Multiplexes B, C and D, to be re-advertised.

However, I would find it very difficult to believe that after the failure of ITV Digital, that any consortium would actually try to make money out of DTT now.

It would most likely be seen as a loss leader rather than a revenue generator. There’s also the little matter of Multiplex A, which was awarded to S4C Digital Networks.

S4C, Channel 5 and Tele G all have guaranteed capacity there, but is SDN going to see it as the revenue generator they wanted? That is the question that only SDN themselves can answer.

For the moment though, we’ll assume that no one goes for the re-advertising of Multiplexes B, C & D. What then? Well, the capacity could be put into the hands of a special organisation, owned by the Government, and reporting directly to the ITC or OFCOM.

Agreements could be done on a channel-by-channel basis, and the whole operation run as a Quango. However, that seems unlikely.

Another possibility is for it to become a kind of Digital Lite service, whereby you pay a monthly subscription to a Quango and you get a whole range of multi-channel programming.

This would work if British Sky Broadcasting were allowed to partially back the service and promote it.

A third possibility comes in the form of making Digital Terrestrial exclusively Free To Air, just like Analogue Terrestrial is these days.

Again, there are options here. One would be to allow a free-for-all, on this, with space being sold on a channel-by-channel basis; the only stipulation being your channel had to be free-to-air.

But I am not in favour of this option. This won’t encourage people to go digital, and you’re not likely to get a lot of channels jumping aboard. Even if you did, the quality of the output from those channels is liable to be desperately low.

The best angle seems to be a structured approach to Digital Terrestrial. Two new Terrestrial networks, exclusively for DTT, should be licenced. The first of these should be regional. One company would be appointed as the main franchisee for a region.

They would have to handle the main news and sport requirements for the service. Another company would be appointed as a secondary programme provider, to provide additional programming to the region and the network. There would be a similar number of regions to the Channel 3 network.

A second new DTT network would be much more local, along the lines of the current set of RSL television channels (Restricted Service Licence). Indeed, current RSL TV channels would be offered a chance to begin this network, or stay independent.

The stations would contribute the network as a whole, allowing the network to sustain programming for all the small stations, whilst primetime would remain distinctly local, not unlike what happens on radio, where the daytime commercial radio is definitely local and the overnight sustaining services are generally networked.

There’s a whole range of possibilities out there, and you’ll probably find it’ll be about 3 to 6 months before we go through it all, and reach the point where we will get an end to all this DTT malarkey.

What happens in the meantime will be as closely watched as most of the programmes are. It will be interesting to see if any consortium has the guts to actually run DTT correctly. It will also be interesting to see what role the government chooses to play.

So far, they have stayed strictly outside the situation, allowing the relevant organisations to do their jobs. But even the government must realise their target of 2010 to convert 95% of the UK to digital is looking even less likely now than it did before, and it was looking very slim before.

If DTT cannot be re-licenced quickly, the Government may have to take the lead and make a decision quickly to solve the problem.

Not having any Digital Terrestrial would be an admission of defeat, and is just plainly not an option. Neither is not having some form of free to view Digital Terrestrial.

The options have been laid out here before us all. It is currently in the hands of businessmen to decide what will happen. It may well end up in the government’s hands. Only time will tell.

[Since this article was written, ITV Digital has been replaced by a free service called Freeview and a small pay service called Top Up TV]

 

Ian Beaumont

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