[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Taking the blame for satellite switch-off

by Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Several readers of this column have e-mailed to ask why, as digital satellite viewers who choose not to pay a subscription, they are now being "bullied" by BSkyB into forking out if they wish to go on watching ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

They feel especially aggrieved if they originally bought a Sky dish because their analogue terrestrial TV reception was lousy. Since bad analogue reception almost certainly means they can't get the digital Freeview service either, they have no alternative but to pay for a satellite subscription if they want to go on watching the commercial channels.

So what is going on? Where is it all leading? And who is to blame?

The answer to the last question is, in no particular order, the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4. The answers to the first two are rather more complicated. Let me explain.

The message from Channel 4 and ITV is, "Tough: you can always switch back to analogue to go on watching us"

Earlier this year the BBC announced it was going to broadcast all its channels on digital satellite unencrypted (or in the clear), a move it said would save it 85m over five years.

One saving: the BBC stopped meeting the cost of the special decoder card, known as a Solus card, which viewers who paid no subscription needed to unscramble their Sky signals. Solus cards are said to cost 12 apiece and there are 333,000 of them.

Unfortunately, ITV, Channel 4 and Five also took advantage of the Solus card - and they were not prepared to pick up the bill to continue funding the system when the BBC walked away.

The message to Solus viewers from both Channel 4 and ITV is, essentially, "Tough: you can always switch back to analogue to go on watching us".

But ITV (which currently pays Sky 17m a year to be part of its encrypted service) also blames the satellite broadcaster.

Sky digital electronic programme guide
The main commercial channels were previously free-to-air via satellite
In theory there is no reason why existing Solus cards should not go on working indefinitely. However, Sky is in the middle of a programme which began in February of replacing all its cards (almost seven million of them) and disabling old ones, including Solus.

Around 56,000 Solus cards were reissued before the BBC stopped funding the service and they will go on working; the rest will not. (An estimated 367,000 lapsed Sky subscribers still using their old cards to watch free channels will also lose out.)

ITV says Sky should stop disabling old Solus cards. Sky says it doesn't want to do that because it would end up having to maintain two separate sets of encryption codes, for its new cards and for the old Solus ones, and that could undermine its security against hackers.

Far from bullying viewers into taking out a subscription Sky says it is simply informing them of their options now that ITV and co have declined to make alternative arrangements for Solus cardholders.

ITV has appealed to the regulator (currently Oftel) which last October told Sky that customers who buy satellite receivers should not be forced to take out a subscription as well.

ITV says that is what is effectively happening now; Sky says dish-owners who do not take out a subscription still have plenty of channels to watch, including all the BBC's, and it is not Sky's fault if ITV and co choose not to pay a fair and reasonable price for an encryption system which would enable them to be available too.
Big Brother
Thousands of satellite viewers enjoyed Channel 4's Big Brother

The satellite viewers who have contacted me clearly think Sky is behaving unreasonably.

When I asked one well-informed observer whether they thought Sky or ITV was in the right I was told that both were, though Sky's argument about hacking, while perfectly valid, was rather weak.

But the argument about who is right may be academic since both sides would rather reach an accommodation.

Sky will not want the opprobrium that comes from actually switching off the Solus cards. ITV will not want some people forced back to analogue in case they simply do not bother and it loses viewers (an even more important argument for Five, whose analogue signal reaches only around three-quarters of the population).

All this might seem rather esoteric to everyone except Solus cardholders were it not for the implications for digital switchover. The more digital viewers who are forced back onto analogue to watch commercial terrestrial channels like ITV and Channel 4, the harder it will be for the government to switch off the old analogue transmitters before its 2010 deadline.

The Labour MP Chris Bryant has already identified that problem and is urging the Department of Culture to broker a compromise of some sort. That may well be the eventual outcome.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific