A digital death?

November 20, 1998

A digital death?

Dear John,

You are, I know, concerned that the advent of digital television this autumn will destroy one of Britain's great cultural achievements-the simultaneous consumption by half the country of high quality television programmes. It would be na? of me not to recognise that this is a possibility. The recent launch of BSkyB's 200-channel satellite service, the imminent start of terrestrial digital television, and the likelihood of digital cable next year-all this amounts to a significant change in broadcasting. However, the processes you dislike began ten years ago in conventional analogue television; with good luck, good government and good management, digital might actually foster the best of traditional broadcasting.

Because digital turns the television set into a computer, and enables viewers to interact with the people providing the programme, it is possible that we will all soon watch television on a one-to-one, transactional basis. Broadcasting would then indeed be dead.

More likely is the less extreme but still serious outcome: that the big increase in television channels, particularly pay channels, which digital enables will intensify the fragmentation of audiences that began with the arrival of cable and satellite a decade ago. Broadcasting becomes narrowcasting-the distribution of content to small, niche audiences.

But we have crossed that Rubicon already. The key conflict is not between digital and analogue but between pay and free television. Despite being driven by Sky's powerful marketing organisation, pay television has been rejected by three quarters of the population. Had it been only the poor who had been excluded, then the socially divisive consequences you anticipate from digital would have already occurred. But this has not happened, because large chunks of Middle England have not hitched themselves to the Murdoch bandwagon.

Will digital increase the number of pay television viewers? It would be extraordinary if it didn't. The Sky monopoly has been broken, so those who don't like either satellite dishes or Murdoch can now take out subscriptions. Also, the range and quality of what is available via pay television will increase. What is required is for the traditional broadcasters-the BBC, the ITV companies and Channel 4-to secure sufficient revenues from pay television to help them survive as predominantly free television broadcasters, with most of the viewing public.

Digital can help this in three ways. It gets BBC, ITV and Channel 4 into pay television for the first time, so they can compete with Sky for key rights such as football and movies. The extra features of digital will allow free television to enjoy the benefits of interactivity. And because digital gives BBC and ITV additional free channels (BBC Choice and ITV2), they can maximise the value of their output, although that requires that they manage their assets effectively; hence the need for "good management."

This is also where "good government" comes in. The Tories understood the importance of digital terrestrial television better than New Labour does. The current government thinks it doesn't matter if the digital future is delivered entirely via satellite and cable. The BBC, although it does think it matters, has made things worse by going-unnecessarily-on to satellite, for fear of Murdoch. Free, universally available television can only be provided by terrestrial transmission; policy-makers must grasp this.

We agree on the importance of free television. But I find your nostalgia for the days when a Dennis Potter play attracted 10m viewers excessively Reithian. He got those figures because of limited choice-a kind of force majeure consumption of high culture.

I started my television career on World in Action in the early 1970s, when it was head-to-head with Panorama, and Channel 4 was a figment in the minds of radical programme makers such as John Birt and David Elstein. As a result our programmes sometimes got over 50 per cent of the audience. We dubbed the programmes in Manchester on Monday and, those of us who lived in London, caught the 6pm train home. The then editor, Gus Macdonald, used to say that if you looked out of the train at Nuneaton you could see half the houses tuned in to your show. Now World in Action-up against Eastenders-is lucky to get 20 per cent of Nuneaton or anywhere else. But at least those who tune in really want to watch it.


Barry Cox

6th October 1998

Dear Barry,

We are basically in agreement about the likely impact of digital television. I was going to say that the difference is that you are an optimist and I am not, but that is too facile. Optimism and pessimism don't come into it. It is a discussion about facts (the likely outcomes of digital) and values (how we rate those outcomes).

The proposition that digital television is socially divisive seems to me to be true by definition. Under the current arrangements, access to digital will require a set-top box and a subscription to a provider (Sky, OnDigital, cable). Those who are unwilling or unable to meet those conditions will be excluded. QED.

True, these lost souls have the option of continuing with analogue. The government has shirked the decision on when the plug will be pulled on the old technology. It may be a decade or longer away. But analogue viewers will increasingly inhabit not just a technological but a cultural ghetto. Digital will attract all the adrenaline of an industry desperate to renew itself. Look at what has happened to the BBC in the last two years: the management's obsession with digital has sucked resources out of almost everything else the Corporation does.

The only way to avoid the ghetto effect is for digital signals to be available, without subscription, via terrestrial broadcasting. On that we are both agreed; you are right to say that we need our policy-makers to comprehend this. But I see no signs that Labour appreciates the importance of the delivery mechanism; the BBC's astonishing decision to use Sky as a carrier makes it less likely that they will see the light.

You say that the Rubicon was crossed a decade ago, that the important dichotomy is pay versus free television, and draw comfort from the way Middle England has, to date, turned its back on satellite television. But all these things are now interrelated. Analogue pay television was a pretty feeble product. But the huge bandwidth of digital technology makes pay television a much more marketable proposition. What sustained Middle England's aversion to Murdochvision was the fact that the best of broadcasting was still available via the licence fee and a normal antenna. If the digital versions of public service broadcasting are only accessible via subscription routes, then we may find that even these staunch allies of public service broadcasting quietly succumb.

My other concern is that the switch to digital means the replacement of broadcasting by narrowcasting. I find your position confusing. On the one hand, you agree that narrowcasting is inevitable. On the other hand, you seem to hope that it won't kill off old-style broadcasting. You express the pious hope that the traditional broadcasters will garner enough revenue from narrowcasting to help them sustain themselves as predominately free television broadcasters.

It won't wash, Barry. Broadcasting means the dissemination of content by a few to the many. It is not just about technology, it is a mindset and a cultural form. It implies that there are some people making decisions about what kinds of productions are worthwhile, significant or popular, and delivering them to huge audiences. It is elitist because it turns a few people (producers, commissioning editors) into cultural commissars and many people (myself included) have been suspicious of the Reithian arrogance at its heart. But even as we railed against that arrogance, we also recognised that the criteria on which decisions were based were, in the end, cultural ones. However sensitive BBC controllers may have been to ratings (and I have known some who put ITV executives to shame), they operated within a system which enabled the creation and transmission of content that was radical, original, uncomfortable or simply important. What made British broadcasting great was the way it balanced attention to popular demand with a determination to give the audience what it didn't know it wanted.

Narrowcasting is driven by a different set of values. The customer is always right. There is no such thing as good or bad television, only stuff that sells and stuff that doesn't. Digital technology makes it possible to salami-slice the audience into ever more precise segments, and to pump whatever each segment wants directly at it. The ideologies of broad and narrowcasting are so different that any organisation which attempts to do both will wind up with institutional schizophrenia. That is why I don't think the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 can do both.

You dismiss my celebration of the time when a Potter play attracted an audience of 10m as Reithian nostalgia. Guilty as charged, m'lud. But I am surprised by the assertion that Dennis got such ratings simply because the audience had a very limited choice. You imply that it is inconceivable that an artist producing original and disturbing work could move millions. I would expect this kind of cynical incredulity from a narrowcaster, not from you.


John Naughton

7th October 1998

Dear John,

I share your estimation of what British broadcasting has achieved and of the "cultural mindset" which allowed it to achieve this. The reason why I am more optimistic than you is based on one solid fact, and a reasonable extrapolation from that fact. All the time Sky has been selling pay television set-top boxes, the British consumer has continued to buy about 3m new television sets each year-six times the number of boxes and satellite dishes sold each year. This despite the fact that new television sets had few, if any, new features; and that they cost more than pay television receivers, which came with a parcel of new channels.

Over the next couple of years, 6m people will buy a new television set; a good number of them will probably buy a digital version-it won't be that much more expensive. That set will deliver both the traditional and the new free channels. If you want pay television you will have to add gadgets to it. Fewer people will buy the digital pay television set-top boxes for their existing sets. So from the start most digital viewing will be to free television. Digital does not by itself have to be socially divisive.

This is the first ground for optimism. The second is that the narrowcast world you envisage will be very short of interesting programmes (other than the sport and films pay television already has) while those who do have them-the traditional broadcasters-now have the chance to make even better use of them. BBC and ITV both plan new channels to allow you to catch up with programmes that you didn't know were any good until it was too late. As one of the "time-poor," I will find this invaluable. There is also the prospect of the commercial broadcasters offering the option of seeing some of their best programmes first on a pay service, which is at least better than only being seen on a pay service. Both of these new opportunities would supplement the current output of the traditional free television channels; indeed, they depend on the continued vitality of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

You suggest-and I agree-that the pressures on creative broadcasting have grown in recent years. But one of the ironies is that the two public service broadcasters-BBC and Channel 4-who do not have to make a profit have had far less restrictive remits than the ITV companies, who do have to. As a result the Gadarene rush towards commercialism evident in those two organisations in recent years has been unrestrained by effective monitoring.

A year ago the government and the ITC imposed a more specific set of public service objectives on Channel 4, and set them out in a revised licence. The same could be done with the BBC. Specific licence requirements could shelter those broadcasters who want to produce the "original, disturbing work" you celebrate. Part of the BBC's problem is that those who would oppose the macho "only ratings matter" element inside the organisation have little ammunition.



8h October 1998

Dear Barry,

The grounds for your optimism about the prospects for old-style broadcasting in a digital age are: first, that consumers will buy digital televisions rather than set-top boxes and associated subscriptions; second, digital narrowcasters will be short of interesting content.

You are being unduly optimistic about the first. The fact that consumers have regularly purchased 3m new sets does not imply that a critical mass of digitally-enabled viewers will exist in two years time. Many of those sets were second or third receivers for children's bedrooms, kitchens, studies or caravans. Only a proportion of the new sets purchased will be digital ones. My guess is that it will take five years before a respectable proportion of the population have digital receivers. The question is whether the old-style broadcasters will be able to keep their nerve (and their licence fee) while that critical mass accumulates.

On the content front, you are on firmer ground. One of the striking things about the new Sky service is how little there is in the way of genuinely new programming. The hype about greater consumer choice is hooey. True, there are a few more distinct channels (some of them provided by the BBC), and you can watch the Discovery channel around the clock; but if you are not into news, sport or movies it will be a case of 200 channels and nothing on the box.

We need to explode the fantasy that digital television widens consumer choice. Whenever industry executives prate on about it, I am reminded of those pigeons BF Skinner used to experiment on in the 1950s-the ones in cages pecking at levers and being rewarded with pellets of food. The choice offered to the digital subscriber is the freedom to choose between whatever Sky or OnDigital has chosen to transmit to him down a digital pipe. In this brave new world, television remains a push medium: executives and schedulers decide what will sell, and push it at the hapless consumer. The only things that have changed are that there are more pipes, and each has a smaller bore.

Digital narrowcasting offers only the illusion of choice; this may prove its undoing. Similarly with its claims to interactivity. The interaction envisaged by Sky involves the viewer sending money to Murdoch down the telephone line which snakes out of the set-top box. Later there will be interactions involving home banking, shopping and ticket-booking. But in terms of genuine interactivity, the digital operations have the responsiveness of a trouser press.

If digital narrowcasting fails it will be because the industry made only half a revolution. It took a technology that is capable of providing real interactivity and consumer freedom and used it to provide an anaemic shadow of both. It could be an expensive mistake. I hope it doesn't bring genuine broadcasting down with it.



8th October 1998

Dear John,

Your suggestion that the most serious drawback to digital television may be the failure to make proper use of the technology's potential is intriguing. It may be that one of the least interesting applications of the new communications technologies will be in the field of television. This reinforces my belief that, with good management and government, the traditional television culture can survive. If the real digital action is elsewhere, this survival will indeed depend on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 "keeping their nerve." It is in the power of the television executives to save us from the descent into the narrowcasting world you describe.

But they are under pressure. It is hard to deal with the fact that "one pay television viewer is worth 100 free ones," as one television boss put it. I will continue to view the future with less apprehension than you do, but I am encouraged that so respected a critic continues to champion the cause of good broadcasting.

Yours ,


8th October 1998

Dear Barry,

James Agate once said that his mind was not like a bed-something that could be made and unmade. Mine, in contrast, is a great big four-poster. I came to this exchange feeling very pessimistic about the prospects for public service broadcasting in the digital age. I come away from it still apprehensive, but thinking that it stands a better chance than I feared.

You say that good management and good government are required if real broadcasting is to endure. I would unpack these conditions further. First, there must be a continuation of funding for public service broadcasting. This means a licence fee. Politically this will be harder to defend in a pay-per-view world, but it must be defended. Any other method-including the subscription idea that some misguided souls urge upon the BBC-will suck broadcasters into the narrowcasting trap. True, the case for continuing the licence fee appears to be elitist; it is based on the celebration of intangible values such as excellence, originality and awkwardness. They are intangible because we do not have a metric for measuring them. In the Thatcher years what could not be measured in pound notes was deemed not to exist; Labour has persisted with this ideology.

Second, the government must ensure that public service obligations are laid on those broadcasters who seek public service status; and their fulfilment of those obligations must be rigorously assessed. The oversight provided by the BBC governors is inadequate and that feeble cabal of establishment boobies should be replaced with an independent body of overseers. This would also halt the recent drift towards narrowcasting in the BBC.

Third, we have to hope that public service broadcasters will find ways of using digital technology to get more from their huge investment in programming without becoming corrupted in the process. Fourth, we have to hope that the take-up of digital television sets will be rapid; this is the only way of building a critical mass of viewers for free-to-air digital broadcasts. Finally, we have to pray that digital narrowcasters continue to ignore the internet until it's too late and it eats them alive.