Manifest commitments 

1 June 2001 tbs.pm/1741

None of the mainstream parties in the last election really addressed television regulation in their manifestos. The 1990 Broadcasting Act is being taken as a given and no party seems willing to question the ideology behind it.

But the government should question the Act. The quality and style of British television in the coming decades is being shaped now in unfair conditions – where media moguls and accountants run what was once considered an art form. The digital revolution will either be a force for good or for bad, with little in-between, and the next government’s job will be to push for the good outcome rather than the bad. The steps to reform are actually quite simple – here are the excerpts from the manifesto that each party should have published:

An end to the monopoly before it starts

We will force Sky to give up the rights to the SkyDigital platform, putting the control in the hands of OfCom, a government-controlled regulator. OfCom will produce a combined DSAT/terrestrial digibox with standard encryption technology plus future HDTV support. The existing terrestrial channels will provide all services with a regional slant (BBC 1/2, ITV, local services) and Astra will serve the rest. Both DSAT and DTT will offer bandwidth for key channels to broadcast in HDTV in the future. Once this happens we will up with as little (quality) television or as much as we choose to watch.

At the moment we have two non-cable digital platforms which waste bandwidth duplicating channels (sometimes poorly) but with some channels not available on both platforms. This pointless competition combined with cross-platform incompatibility is seriously hindering both digital take-up and technological innovation.

Channel Five replaced or canceled entirely

The current Channel 5 operator will lose its licence to broadcast; no ifs, no buts – the channel appears not to be viable without low standards, but those low standards cannot be tolerated in a ‘mainstream’ channel.

Permanent on-screen logos abolished.

All BBC and UK commercial channels will lose their DOGs, or make them switchable so that people who don’t want them can do away with them – the technology is already available for this. We will consult on letting 24-hour news channels keep on-screen clocks, but consider that semi-transparent or selectable ones would be best. Our view is that, if the programmes are of a high enough quality and the presentation is unique, viewers will not need DOGs.

Restrictions on hours

BBC channels will only broadcast from 0600 to 0100 (except for out-of-hours exempt broadcasts such as outside broadcasts). Repeats will be minimised. Both of these measures ensure that the licence fee should mainly be spent on fresh quality programming (especially necessary with five channels to maintain).

Formal closedowns are to be mandatory in order to enhance the presentation quality of all channels.

Commercial channels can broadcast 24 hours a day, but must have an hour of ‘dead time’ at least once a week, and have a short formal startup at the commencement of ‘ordinary’ daily broadcasting. This would have parallels in the American FCC rule that demands formal station identification.

Sanctions for non-compliance

Channels that repeatedly break rules regarding programme punctuality and broadcasting standards will have their broadcasting hours temporarily restricted depending on the severity of the offence, or lose their licence altogether.

Commercial and regional television

ITV will become a national commercial network on DSAT/DTT and ITV2 will adopt the mantle of commercial regional television with very strict regulation relating to regional content. Key popular programming, as defined by OfCom, will have to feature on ITV2 in order to attract viewers and maintain service viability.

Channel 4 will have a tighter programming remit, relating to minority programming. Licenced commercial broadcasters will all pay a levy to the channel to ensure this is viable. General entertainment programmes will be transferred to E4, which will remain free-to-air.

New BBC services

BBC-3 will be like the original BBC Choice but the Corporation must supply additional funding for original quality programming. The BBC has a heritage and should be proud of it. BBC-4 will be mainly educational/arts driven. The freedom of the BBC to compete with commercial channels will not be impinged – fairness has nothing to do with a national resource like broadcasting, and arguments that this is unfair are bogus and outdated. The BBC is like the British Museum – something the country would be infinitely poorer without and something that all competitors pale into insignificance against. This can only be a good thing for the culture of the nations of the United Kingdom.

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