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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 11:53 GMT
The future of digital TV
Little Britain
Little Britain debuted on BBC Three

BBC Three launched this week: yet another channel clamouring for attention in the digital world - there are now no fewer than 384 on the Sky Digital platform.

Though BBC Three marks the end of the BBC's planned expansion into the digital realm - this is the 10th and last of its new TV and radio services - broadcasting is a dynamic industry. The pace of change is unlikely to slow.

So here are a few things to look out for in the next 12 or 18 months - with my thanks for their suggestions to Barry Cox, the government's "digital tsar", Dawn Airey, the newly-appointed managing director of Sky Networks and Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of

A clear majority of us have now gone digital. Some 28.2 million live in multi-channel homes against 27.2 million who don't, according to the television ratings organisation Barb.

Expect that proportion to continue growing.

Dawn Airey has joined Sky as managing director
Expect, too, more expansion from Sky. It's already promised to launch three new music channels around Easter; Dawn Airey says the possibilities for further growth are "unlimited".

Emily Bell believes that within 18 months Sky may well have bought Five, following changes in ownership rules set out in the Communications Bill.

How far it could turn Five into Sky One isn't clear.

Sky only has pay-TV rights for many of its most popular programmes.

The Simpsons
The Simpsons was poached from the BBC by Channel 4
But a Sky able to use Five as a shop window for its other services would be a formidable competitor indeed.

Yet the older broadcasters are learning to fight back against the onslaught of multi-channel competition.

Barry Cox points out that, while BBC One, ITV1 and Channel 4 have been losing audiences, the BBC family of channels as a whole, like the Channel 4 family (E4 and Film Four) and the ITV family (including ITV2) have been holding their own or even gaining audience share.

So expect even more cross-promotion: a channel like BBC Three may cannibalise BBC One's audience, E4 eat into Channel 4's, but that's still better than seeing the viewers desert to Sky altogether.

But while the number of channels has been increasing, their distinctiveness may diminish.

Ms Airey points out that The Simpsons, at the centre of a recent bidding war, could have been snapped up by any of the main channels.

Audience chasing

They were keen to have it because big programme "brands" are extremely valuable: but the fact that the show would have fitted virtually any schedule suggests that the main channels are tending to converge.

Ms Bell agrees: she sees more homogeneity, greater emphasis on chasing audiences and less risk-taking and imagination among channel controllers.

Meanwhile Mr Cox says the government will soon have to take hard decisions on digital switch-over - and find a way to break it to perhaps hundreds of thousands of homes that when existing analogue transmitters are switched off they may be forced to get Sky.

What next?

Perhaps the government will end up paying to install satellite dishes for them.

What no-one can predict with certainty is the next hot programme genre.

We've had docusoaps, makeover shows, reality TV and Pop Idol and its clones.

What's next? My own tip: real-life drama, everything from The Lost Prince to ITV's forthcoming story of Danielle Cable, the woman whose fiancÚ was brutally murdered by Kenneth Noye in the M25 road rage attack.

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

Industry eye

Digital watch
See also:

07 Jan 03 | Entertainment
10 Feb 03 | Entertainment
07 Feb 03 | Entertainment
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