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Thursday, 4 January, 2001, 18:01 GMT
'Fairness' promised over BBC digital plans
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Government insisting on "widespread consultation"
The government has sought to allay the fears of broadcasters who complained the BBC's digital plans were an abuse of the licence fee.

The satellite and cable companies want to "stop the BBC putting its tanks on their lawn" with its new BBC Three and BBC Four digital channels, according to The Times.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport confirmed it had received a letter to this effect from BSkyB, MTV, Turner Broadcasting - which includes CNN and Cartoon Network - Nickelodeon, Telewest and Discovery.

But he added there would be a "widespread public and industry consultation" over the plans, and that everything would be conducted fairly.

Chris Smith
Chris Smith: BBC cannot use licence fee for "cross-subsidy"
The letter has not yet been seen by Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who is on holiday.

The spokesman said Mr Smith had already made clear the BBC was not allowed to use the licence fee to subsidise commercial ventures, such as a pay-per-view sport channel.

It was a "primary concern" that any new services took account of the licence fee rules, he added.

But he added that the broadcasters would be given the opportunity to air their grievances during the consultation, which is to take place "as soon as is practicable after Parliament resumes on 8 January".

It is likely that the government will have reached its decision on the BBC's digital plans by the end of spring, he added.

The BBC also said the broadcasters would be able to voice their views during the consultation.

It rebuffed the letter's claims that the BBC had begun "hiring staff and making plans for the launch of digital channels before getting government approval".

BBC TV Centre
BBC says its is complying with government requirements
"We have not hired staff for any planned services - we are complying with all the government's requirements," a spokesman said.

He added the BBC believed its proposals "provide a distinctive, but complementary, alternative to commercial services".

The BBC confirmed in August it was considering a reorganisation of its digital television channels to create BBC Three and BBC Four.

Only digital televisions would be able to receive the new services, which are dependent on the backing of BBC governors and the government.

But with the "switching off" of analogue TV forecast for 2010, the BBC would then be able to offer four main television channels to all viewers in the UK.

Competition

The BBC's media correspondent, Nick Higham, has said the BBC thinks its channels, including existing digital channels such as BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge, will have to become more clearly defined.

He explained that under the new plan, arts programmes like the Proms, as well as science and politics, would be on BBC Knowledge.

That would be renamed BBC Four and aimed at the same kind of audience as Radio 4.

BBC Choice, home to programmes like the entertainment news show Liquid News, would be renamed BBC Three and aimed at younger viewers - who have been deserting the BBC.

BBC Three would provide competition for BSkyB's Sky 1 and MTV, while its plans for a new children's channel could pose a threat to Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

Discovery and Telewest's channels could also be affected, and Artsworld, a joint venture between BSkyB and Sir Jeremy Isaacs is "concerned about plans to turn BBC Knowledge into BBC Four", the Times added.

See also:

12 Dec 00 | UK Politics
No 'digital divide' under Labour
19 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Digital rights and wrongs
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