Will the BBC’s commitment to digital switchover waiver under the new licence fee settlement? Julian Clover reports
There is no doubting that the BBC has thrown itself fully behind the digital switchover process. First by launching new digital channels and later by bailing the government out of a major policy failure when ITV Digital went under by launching the Freeview platform. The result is that 70% of UK households now have access to digital television, even if the remaining 30% seems a little more problematic.
As part of the new five-year licence fee settlement negotiations the BBC agreed to spend £600 million on equipping the elderly and infirm with digital set-top boxes – an element now at risk as the BBC Trust speaks of hard choices. The BBC has also agreed to fund switchover body Digital UK’s £200 million promotional campaign. It seems decidedly unfair that the BBC should have to fund what is ostensibly government policy – even if the Corporation is using the move to digital to drive further expansion of its services. If switchover all goes horribly wrong will it be the BBC or the government that gets the blame?
Although the increase announced by culture secretary Tessa Jowell, of 3% for the first two years of the settlement and 2% for years three, four and five, is less than the BBC asked for, there is a counter argument suggesting that a growth in the number of households would in part compensate for the shortfall. The TV Licence Fee will rise to £135.50 in April and up to £151.50 by 2012. Commercial broadcasters would lick their lips at the prospect of having their income mapped out for a five-year period.
One commercial broadcaster that might receive a part of the licence fee is Channel 4. A public corporation, Channel 4 has this week been in the news itself over allegations of racism on Celebrity Big Brother. A proposal currently being considered by Ofcom would see the BBC provide funding for Channel 4’s move to digital at a cost of £14 million. The BBC has indicated to the Department of Culture that digital switchover will free up multiplex space for one video channel and three radio channels. This is a little curious, though itself could be a ploy by the BBC, as with the UK’s commercial broadcasters seeks capacity for HDTV.