Pay-per-PSB? Not as a package 

20 July 2008

COO of BSkyB, Mike Darcey, writing in the Royal Television Society journal Television (Vol. 45:6, July 2008 p12), reckons Ofcom – and many of the rest of us – are all asking the wrong question about the future of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB). He claims that Ofcom’s gloom around PSB – falling revenues, declining quality, and so on, is at odds with his view of the sector, which is that there is a “competitive, dynamic marketplace” offering “more choice, more innovation and more value”. Hmm. Don’t get me started on this so-called choice – aka “hundreds of channels and nothing on”.

Darcey thinks (and I agree with him) that TV funded entirely by advertising is “consistently drawn towards bland, middle-of-the-road programming”. He also believes (though I don’t quite see the relevance to the sector as a whole) that the recent premium-rate scandals are the “canaries in the mine of PSB decline”.

In a nutshell, Darcey suggests that there is this big market for PSB out there which could be satisfied via a pay-per-view model: PSB by subscription. There’s no such thing as “free”, he says: “free at the point of consumption” has to be paid for somewhere along the line, whether by advertising or by a licence fee. Sky Arts, Discovery Channel and National Geographic viewers also get “free at the point of consumption” content – once they’ve paid the subscription. What’s wrong with that as a funding mechanism for PSB?

What’s wrong with that is simple: in the real world of digital multichannel pay-TV, you can’t actually buy what you want. On Darcey’s own service, you can’t buy a subscription to National Geographic, or Discovery… not without buying a bunch of other channels that you may not be wanting to pay for.

You want Sky Arts? You need the Style & Entertainment package. This doesn’t just give you Sky Arts, it gives you 29 other channels, which, of course, you pay for whether you watch them or not.

Similarly, if you want Discovery, you need the Knowledge Mix – with another 17 channels that aren’t Discovery Channel and its variants (HD, +1 etc etc) – whether you wanted them or not.

At least it isn’t like it used to be in the old days, when you couldn’t buy a documentary channel without getting a bunch of sports channels along with them, because some channels subsidised some others (that is presumably still the case but at least the channels in the mix are a little more likely to be of interest). But when Sky says “Build your own Sky combination”, it still means nothing more than selecting from a choice of mix’n’match set menus – there is no a la carte option here.

Obviously, just as in a restaurant, we would expect the individual channel price for a la carte dishes to be higher than those in a ‘set menu’ (“Mix”) – but not that much. Equally, some channels might be more expensive than others – depending on how popular they are perhaps, and their own production costs (or how much they charge the carrier). But we can’t evaluate how that might work, because it’s not an option you can choose from Sky. So much for “choice”.

“Pay-per-PSB” may be a reasonable idea in theory – but it’s yet to be tried in practice. And it doesn’t remove the need for the BBC, by the way, even if it worked.