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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 09:36 GMT
Changing digital TV perceptions

By Nick Higham
BBC News

Alan Clark's timing couldn't have been better.

As louchely embodied by John Hurt he arrived on BBC Four, trailing critical plaudits and almost 850,000 viewers in his wake, just as the press was stoking up an almighty row about the miserable audience figures at some times of the day by the Beeb's new digital television channels.

John Hurt in The Alan Clark Diaries
The Alan Clark Diaries are on BBC Four on Thursdays
As so often it was the Guardian that led the attack.

Not that the Guardian is anti-BBC, just that thanks to its website, MediaGuardian.co.uk, and its energetic media correspondent Matt Wells, its media coverage has a breadth and depth no other newspaper can match.

According to the Guardian more than 1,300 hours of programmes on the BBC's digital channels were zero-rated last year.

Other papers picked up the story, zeroing-in especially on BBC News 24.

Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, riposted with an article in the Guardian in which she dismissed the zero-rating debate as a red herring.

All digital channels suffered periods when they had no audience - or at least, when their audience was too small to measure: "The point is simply that digital is a different universe."

Those of us in BBC News also had an e-mail from the director of news, Richard Sambrook, pointing out that News 24's periods of zero-rating were usually in the middle of the night when it picks up "hundreds of thousands of viewers" thanks to being simulcast on BBC One.

Nonetheless the Alan Clark Diaries prove what even a digital channel can do with a well-crafted piece of work promoted as "event television".

The show was heavily advertised, and duly delivered a higher share of viewing in digital homes than any other channel except BBC One and ITV1, higher even than the new series of ER on E4.

Acute

The problem of low-rating digital channels will be with us for a long time to come.

For the BBC - paid for by everybody, whether they have a digital TV or radio or not - it is especially acute but it is a problem for commercial broadcasters too.

More than anything it is a problem of perception. The public, and opinion formers like media correspondents and politicians, have got used to being told that successful television shows enjoy audiences of eight or 10 million.

Now they have to come to terms with a world in which the ratings for most programmes on most channels are inevitably a fraction of that. It would make more sense to talk about a channel's weekly reach or overall share of viewing - just as we already do for radio.

But changing perceptions is a difficult job.

It takes more than an Alan Clark Diaries-style poster campaign to achieve it.

Perhaps the BBC should start by taking Matt Wells of the Guardian to lunch more often.

A version of this column appears in the BBC in-house newspaper Ariel.

Nick Higham can be contacted at nick.higham@bbc.co.uk


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