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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 02:39 GMT 03:39 UK
Broadcasters' doubts over digital TV
ITV Digital¿s closure announcement
The closure of ITV Digital has been a "body blow"
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By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent

The government is insisting its plans for the future of digital television will not be deflected by the failure of ITV Digital.

Both Downing Street and the Culture Department say they still hope to turn off the existing analogue TV signals by the end of the decade, believing that almost all homes should have digital TV by then.

Sadly, that view is not widely shared, particularly within the broadcasting business.

As ITV Digital finally closed its pay channels, after weeks on a knife-edge, MPs on the culture select committee described the company¿s collapse as a "body blow" to the government plans of switching the whole country to digital TV by the year 2010.

The clear expectation is that within about six weeks there will be a new operator for ITV Digital

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell

And on Radio 4's Today programme, the former Sky, ITV and Channel 5 boss David Elstein went further, blaming the government for coming up with a date at all.

He said: "2010 was never realistic and I think in many ways the government bears quite a heavy responsibility for having put forward a target which was never likely to be met, and which helped lure Carlton and Granada (ITV Digital's owners) on to the killing fields of digital pay TV."

But Tony Blair's spokesman said there were no plans to scrap the target period of 2006-2010, because the digital policy was a long-term one, and they would not be diverted by short-term events.

Less optimistic

The Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said 40% of UK homes already had digital TV in one form or another and she expected other companies to take up ITV Digital's licences within weeks.

She said: "The very clear expectation is that within a period of about six weeks there will be a new operator for the digital terrestrial platform, so the very large numbers of subscribers, who from choice have subscribed to DTT (digital terrestrial television), will then have the opportunity to resume their subscription and to see the channels they have enjoyed again."

But the major broadcasters are much less optimistic.

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Sky insiders say there is little chance it will bid for ITV Digital's business

They feel that if bidders are to emerge, they are unlikely to offer as many pay channels as ITV Digital did, if any.

After all, they point out, if ITV could not make DTT pay, with all its resources and advantages of cross-promotion and combined programme deals, who could?

One answer is ITV Digital's great rival BSkyB, but even if the competition authorities allowed it to play a role in DTT, those close to the satellite company say there is little sign that it wants to get involved.

It seems to believe it will pick up the bulk of the ITV Digital customers anyway, now they are hooked on the sport and movie channels.

Crucial role

Most of the mainstream broadcasters believe the future of the DTT platform - if it has one - is as a largely free service, clearly differentiated from the pay TV offerings on satellite and cable.

Here the BBC could play a crucial role, since the government increased the licence fee specifically for it to produce free-to-air digital channels that will attract viewers to switch over from the analogue system.

But the BBC already has its own digital multiplex and so does not need to apply to the ITC for any of the new licences.

The same goes for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

If the existing public service broadcasters are to help the government out of its difficulties and keep the DTT platform going, it is not yet clear exactly how they will do it.

See also:

26 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Digital TV switchover 'still on track'
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