Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

TV faces switch-over switch-off

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland news website

The confirmation that analogue television in Scotland will be switched off by the summer of 2011 has major implications for the future of STV.

remotes
The future of TV is a multi-channel digital world
The station has been arguing that without some public funding, it will be unable to continue producing as many news and current affairs programmes in the future.

Now we have a better idea of when the station will either need to be given public money or permission to cut its local output - something it insists it does not want to do.

Historically, regulators were able to impose wide-ranging public service obligations on ITV stations - legal requirements to make programmes which weren't necessarily in the companies' business interests such as news and current affairs or children's programmes.

It was the price the companies paid for privileged access to a scarce resource - the airwaves.

In recent years, ITV's advantages over other commercial broadcasters have faded fast as viewers switched to digital and the station became just one of many commercial broadcasters.

If Ofcom and ITV plc cannot reach a suitable long-term settlement on a wide range of issues, ITV plc may chose to hand back its licences

And as soon as each region becomes fully digital, the old privileges all but vanish. In the old Grampian Television area, now owned by STV, analogue television will be gone by the autumn of 2010. Central Scotland will follow by the summer of 2011.

If an ITV station were forced to spend large sums of money on programmes it did not want to make after analogue TV is switched off, it could conceivably hand back its current licence to broadcast - the old-fashioned ITV regional franchises - and continue doing the things it actually wanted to do on satellite, cable and the part of the Freeview digital television system which does not carry public service obligations.

About the only downsides are that ITV might appear in a less prominent slot on the electronic programme guide and would not be available through an ordinary aerial to viewers who get their signal from a relay transmitter.

But it seems hard to believe that most fans of The X Factor or Coronation Street would not manage to find their favourite shows or be prepared to invest in satellite or cable TV if they thought they would lose out.

News programmes

There's no word on where the axe might fall if STV does not get public money - only that the cuts would be noticed by viewers rather than the kind of internal "efficiency savings" which don't have direct implications for the public.

But the speculation is that without public money, STV may stop providing two distinct news programmes - one for the Central Belt, another for the former Grampian TV area in the North and North east. ITV in England and the Borders is already set to merge regional news programmes within the next few weeks.

Children watching television
Public money could be a revenue source for commercial TV
Analysts believe there are two potential sources of public money - some of the BBC licence fee or taxpayers' cash from Westminster or Holyrood. Either option is potentially controversial - but so would significant cuts to Scottish news.

The question of public funding for some of STV's output is just one of a number of issues facing the entire ITV network. The communications watchdog Ofcom is currently looking at how the network might be structured in the future.

The ITV network is dominated by ITV plc, which owns all the old regional stations in England, Wales and the Borders.

It argues that STV and Ulster Television are being heavily subsidised and wants this to stop - STV and Ulster both strongly deny this charge.

If Ofcom and ITV plc cannot reach a suitable long-term settlement on a wide range of issues, ITV plc may chose to hand back its licences. Instead ITV plc would run ITV1 as a UK-wide service on satellite, cable and some of the Freeview system.

This would deprive STV and Ulster of access to popular network programmes and means they would be unable to survive in their present form.

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