Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by BECTU

  1.  BECTU's background views on some of the issues being considered by the Committee have been set out both in our response to Government on the Communications White Paper and in our submission to the Committee's earlier Inquiry on this issue. We await the impending consultation on media ownership and of course the Communications Bill itself.

  2.  Rather than respond on each of the points raised in the Inquiry we would like at this stage to focus on the development of digital broadcasting.

  3.  To place our remarks in context, our key views and concerns, as already expressed in the submissions mentioned above, include:

    —  The centrality of public service broadcasting (PSB) to the future of British broadcasting.

    —  A preference for strong content regulation in relation to programme quality and original production, with a separate and specific focus on content within OFCOM.

    —  Concern at the increasing concentration of ownership in ITV and the need, as a quid pro quo, for a strengthened commitment to regional production.

  4.  We note the Committee's interest in "defining and providing public service broadcasting". The recent Communication from the European Commission on "The Application of State Aid Rules to PSB" is obviously highly relevant to any such debate, stating as it does that "definition of the public service mandate falls within the competence of Member States". We have written to the Secretary of State asking how and by who such a definition will be drawn up in the UK. We still seek clarity on this issue and would therefore wish to defer our own comments at this point.

  5.  Against a background of these general views, we welcome the development of digital broadcasting by means of satellite, terrestrial and cable delivery systems. We believe the development of a digital market with a programme and audience base sufficiently to justify analogue switch-off will depend on healthy growth via all three platforms.

  6.  We note continuing evidence—both from the Consumers Association and from market research groups—that a significant proportion of the population is not currently interested in switching from analogue to digital. Thus, while nearly 40 per cent of TV households currently have access to digital TV, perhaps a third of the population have no plans for such a switchover—which poses a significant problem for Government if it is to realise its target of 95 per cent digital penetration leading to analogue switch-off between 2006 and 2010.

  7.  We further note the serious problems currently faced by the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform in the form of the ITV Digital consortium. With investment to date of £800 million and an estimated further £400 million required before break-even, we recognise there is a distinct possibility that the DTT platform might fail altogether.

  8.  In our view this would be a highly undesirable development:

    —  DTT is technically the best means for ensuring that digital broadcasting reaches 100 per cent of the UK population—thereby preserving universal coverage for our broadcasting system.

    —  By the same token, DTT is and should remain a vital component of the Government's strategy for achieving 95 per cent coverage by 2006-10.

    —  DTT is the platform with the greatest emphasis on free-to-air channels, as opposed to the subscription-based satellite and cable platforms.

  9.  We therefore welcome in principle the proposed digital coalition by which PSB terrestrial broadcasters could offer free multichannel digital TV through a basic set-top box (which could in time be upgraded to receive subscription channels).

  10.  We further recognise that Government has a key role to play in shaping a digital broadcasting system accessible to all.

  11.  The White Paper makes a welcome commitment that the free to air PSB channels will continue to be available after digital switchover; that "must carry" obligations for PSB channels will apply on cable and satellite; and that such channels should receive due prominence in electronic programme guides.

  12.  However, the increasing revenue streams now available to the subscription-based platforms make it harder, in our view, to justify the much lower level of content regulation which the White Paper proposes for BskyB. Despite the "new market" justification for lower regulatory standards for satellite in the past, the balance of forces in the converging digital market make it increasingly feasible to apply standards on quality and original programming to BskyB which are comparable to those applying to the terrestrial broadcasters.

  13.  Given the uncertainty surrounding the future of DTT, we believe there are other measures which could be given consideration even in advance of the forthcoming legislation:

    —  The Government's Digital Action Plan could be given more bite and focus by the appointment of a "Digital Champion" to promote the development of digital broadcasting.

    —  The problems being experienced by ITV Digital, taken in conjunction with the serious and unforeseen downturn in ITV advertising revenue (with perhaps a 16 per cent fall in 2001 and no immediate upturn in prospect), might also, in our view, justify a readjustment of ITV license payments—with the proviso that any savings should be wholly earmarked for investment in digital broadcasting.

  14.  We recognise that the Inquiry is due to consider a range of other issues. We believe, however, that digital broadcasting—and in particular the future for a digital terrestrial platform with a central component of free-to-air PSB channels—is a key aspect of the current debate.

  15.  We look forward to the Committee's consideration of these issues.

27 November 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 May 2002