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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Race to find digital broadcaster
Screengrab of ITV Digital's message to subscribers
Pay-TV has stopped but free-to-air digital goes on
An urgent search has begun for a buyer of a licence to broadcast digital terrestrial television in the UK.

The television regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), launched the fast-track process after administrators of ITV Digital admitted defeat in attempts to sell the stricken broadcaster as a going concern.

1. Pay-TV channels came off air at 0700 BST.
2. ITV Sport channel has been made free-to-air.
3. Those with set-top boxes will still get free-to-air digital channels including BBC News 24, BBC Four and ITV 2.

Click here for more on the implications for subscribers

Hundreds of thousands of ITV Digital subscribers earlier woke up to a greatly reduced service after the broadcaster's administrators took the service's pay-TV channels off air at 0700 UK time (0600 GMT).

The firm is now heading towards liquidation, with at least 1,300 jobs expected to go.

But Football League fans have been given a reprieve and will be able to watch the current series of play-off matches, after the subscription-only ITV Sport channel was re-designated a free-to-air channel.

In other developments on Wednesday

  • John Batchelor, chairman of York City football club, said he planned to launch a bid for ITV Digital himself
  • Channel 4 said it would continue to provide its E4 and Film Four channels to ITV Digital subscribers until 24 May
  • A committee of MPs called on the government to take swift action to ensure digital terrestrial television survived in the UK
  • Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said she was confident a buyer would be found for the licences returned to the ITC
  • The Scottish football club Airdrie went into liquidation and put all its assets, including its name, up for sale

Still hoping for a buyer

ITV Digital's 20 or so pay-TV channels - including music channel MTV, BSkyB sports and films and Nickelodeon - went off air in the morning, after administrators of the company Deloitte & Touche said they had failed to find a buyer and fresh funding.

ITV Digital customers will see an on-screen message advising them of the latest situation and providing a contact number for further information.

In the short term, subscribers will still be able to receive 12 free-to-air digital channels, such as BBC News 24, BBC Four, BBC Choice and ITV 2 as well as the five terrestrial channels.

The longer term outlook remains uncertain, with ITV Digital's administrators still hoping to find a buyer for the company's customer base and set-top boxes.

Broadcasters wanted

The ITC will now invite other broadcasters to bid for the right to transmit digital television services that can be received through rooftop aerials.

The commission hopes to find a new broadcaster within six weeks.

Applicants will have two weeks to express an interest, and a further two weeks to submit their application, leaving another 14 days for the ITC to award the licence.

ITV Digital - timeline
Jan 1997: BSkyB, Carlton and Granada form British Digital Broadcasting
June 1997: BSkyB told to quit project
Aug 1998: BDB renamed ONdigital
Nov 1998: ONdigital starts broadcasting
Apr 2001: rebranded as ITV Digital
Sep 2001: Sum invested hits 788m
Feb 2002: ITV Digital shake-up revealed
Mar 2002: Administrators called in
May 2002: Pay-TV services switched off

Analysts say that the licence could be awarded to a consortium of broadcasters, instead of a single company.

But if there are no bidders for the licence, the government's long-term strategy of switching UK television broadcasting from an analogue to a digital signal would be in serious trouble.

Play-offs safe

Good news for customers is that the ITV Sport channel, one of the pay channels, has been re-designated a free-to-air channel, ensuring that Football League play-offs will be screened as planned this weekend and throughout the season.

This is set to make the matches available to a wider audience.

ITV Digital's cripplingly expensive 315m broadcast deal with the league was the catalyst for the company's downfall.

The broadcaster went into administration in March after attempts to negotiate lower television rights fees failed.

The failed firm still owes the league 178.5m on the three-year contract to show its games.

Call centre cull

About 225 staff at ITV Digital's London headquarters, including the senior management team, lost their jobs on Tuesday.

About 900 call centre workers, contracted to the company through employment firm Manpower, at Pembroke Dock in Wales are to be laid off on Wednesday.

"People are shell shocked, hurt and devastated," said a representative for the workers, Jim Band.

Five hundred staff at the company's Plymouth call centre will be kept on for a few more weeks to handle calls from ITV Digital subscribers, but will soon be facing the axe as well.

The administrators Deloitte & Touche decided to begin the shutdown after failing to find a buyer for the company.

The administrators said there was "no appetite" in the market for such a sale, while "strenuous efforts" to cut costs had failed.

The demise of ITV Digital came as research group Forrester predicted digital terrestrial TV would reach 11% of European homes by 2007 - just three percentage points above where it stands today.

Spain's Quiero is among other digital terrestrial broadcasters that have collapsed in recent weeks.

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"Subscribers continue to get the free channels"
The BBC's Wyre Davies reports from Pembroke Dock
"This is a very deprived part of Wales"
John Batchelor, York City chairman
"The content thus far has been fairly lacklustre, we have a format that will attract further subscribers to the platform"

Latest news


Football feels pinch
See also:

02 May 02 | Entertainment
01 May 02 | Entertainment
01 May 02 | Airdrieonians
01 May 02 | Wales
30 Apr 02 | Wales
30 Apr 02 | Wales
30 Apr 02 | Wales
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