THE BRITISH TELEVISION industry today is a bit like the proverbial swan — it may all look smooth and controlled on the top, but underneath there is a lot of mad paddling going on.
The drive towards digital television is proceeding at a frantic pace, with about two-thirds of households now having taken up one or another form of digital reception. The terrestrial digital system, Freeview, is selling like hot set-top boxes. Sky is competing strongly with its much larger range of channels, including exclusive sport and films, and the UK’s first high-definition television service is due to start next year. The two cable companies, NTL and Telewest, have finally merged and once that is all complete they will presumably get back to trying to grow their customer base.
The Government has announced the timetable for digital switch-over. In 2008 viewers in the Borders region will find that they must buy Freeview boxes for every one of the television sets in their home — if they want to continue watching TV.
Unlike the last time that the broadcast sys tem changed, where the VHF signal was left in place for several years before being switched off, this time the switch-over will all happen within a few days. Other regions will follow Borders until the process is completed by the end of 2012.
Most people in the industry are expecting utter chaos to ensue, with the poor and the elderly looking at their blank screens and wondering what has happened to their telly.
Meanwhile, the major broadcasters are striving to expand their range of offerings. The BBC has launched BBC3, BBC4, BBC News24 and a couple of kids’ channels. ITV has launched ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and ITV News. Channel 4 has E4 and More4.
Having discovered that their audiences are being cannibalised by the smaller digital channels, they have concluded that the best way to survive is by setting up their own smaller digital channels, then at least they can pick up some of the displaced audience.
The 30 or so Freeview slots are now coming under severe pressure. Apart from one channel currently under auction, no new ones are now likely to be created until switch-over is completed, when re-engineering will release some capacity from the BBC’s allocation.
And what, you may ask, does all this mean for Scotland? You might expect that with more than 30 channels on offer on digital television there might be room for at least one which reflects the country in which we live. Not so. Every one of the 30 channels on offer in Scotland pretty much originates from London — and to the BBC in London, Scotland is that remote little bit at the top of the weather map.
This is not the case in Wales which not only has its own Welsh-language channel, S4C, but the digital version of BBC2 broad casts several hours of programmes created specifically for Wales every evening.
The BBC is currently in the process of negotiating its new license-fee settlement and it has made it clear what its priorities are: digital switch-over, fewer repeats and a massive relocation of staff to Manchester. Plans for a Scottish channel are not among its priorities.
The British Broadcasting Corporation has decided that a higher priority is a new TV channel aimed at viewers in the Middle East - in Arabic!
Ian Ritchie is a director of Channel 4; these are his own views.