Pay television will not belong to Rupert Murdoch. But Barry Cox, a senior television executive, says it will create a two-tier system in which commercial values will dominate. It is up to politicians to ensure that the residual "free" service retains some of the qualities of public service broadcastingby Barry Cox / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the final week of January two events shook British broadcasting. Michael Grade, one of our most successful television executives, quit as head of Channel 4. Four days later the four biggest media organisations in the country-and four fierce rivals-combined to bid for the bulk of the new terrestrial digital licences on offer from the Independent Television Commission (ITC).
The two events are not obviously related. Yet both are reactions to the deep changes that are sweeping through the industry, in Britain as elsewhere. Grade is leaving television to run an entertainment group-a step which until very recently would have seemed a bizarre retreat to the second division for someone of his talents. That few expressed such a thought indicates the extent to which traditional broadcasting has lost its place at the top of the media and entertainment sector. Likewise, the fact that Carlton, Granada, BSkyB and the BBC felt they had to swallow their differences and come together if they were to manage successfully the journey to the multi-channel digital future is evidence of how far power in broadcasting has shifted.
The emerging forces are the rights holders, in particular those who own the rights to big events (such as football matches) which, when broadcast live, can, thanks to the development of pay television technologies, generate revenues that would have been inconceivable five years ago. This shift of power is one of the two fundamental changes that the arrival of pay television is bringing about. The other is the beginning of the end of universal access and its replacement with a two-tier television culture, where those who pay to watch have either unique or primary access to the best programmes and those who do not, or cannot afford to, are left with second best material. In the late 1990s, rights is might. To a considerable extent the continuation of public service broadcasting, whether funded by the licence fee or the sale of advertising, will turn on the extent to which those who own the important rights want to see it continue, or are allowed by the politicians to determine its future.