Former BBC director-general Lord Birt has warned that digital television's increased competition for viewers could leave the BBC the UK's monopoly provider of public service broadcasting, and Channel 4 "a pale, frail version of its original self".
Delivering the 30th MacTaggart memorial lecture at the Edinburgh television festival—a lecture many observers felt summarised the problems facing television in the digital era, but offered no solutions—Birt said Channel 4's ability to invest and take risks would diminish.
"One day we shall wake up and realise either that Channel 4 has fundamentally shifted towards a more commercial stance, or that it has become a pale, frail version of its original self," said Birt. This was not a criticism, he stressed. "Channel 4 is facing a tide that cannot be held back."
The "inevitability" we were heading for was that the BBC would face "less-and-less competition as a public service broadcaster".
"It will be close to the monopoly supplier it once was before 1955—a bleak prospect. If we are to have any hope of conserving a splendid tradition, public policy has to maintain the existence of strong public service broadcasters and to promote effective competition between them."
Birt, now a Downing Street advisor, stopped short of calling for 'top-slicing', the allocation of some of the BBC's licence fee income to commercial broadcasters to fund their public service programming. But he said policy makers had to consider how best to ensure that "Channel 4 is sufficiently well funded to be able to snap at the heels of the BBC".
Birt said the BBC's governors had not already maintained a detailed and detached view of how well its television service had been performing its mission. "Beady modern regulators in other sectors have shown just how effectively this kind of scrutiny can be exercised," said Birt, who again stopped short of calling for the corporation to come fully under Ofcom's regulatory umbrella.
On the major developments facing broadcasters, Birt said two big battles were about to be fought: one for control of the media experience on mobile devices, the other for dominance of the electronic gateway into the home. Both were driven by improvements in memory, broadband and wireless technologies.
"We are not many steps away now from the ultimate digital vision—what you want, when you want it, where you want it. If you want it to be, your mobile device will be your all-in-one broadcast TV and radio receiver, your video telephone, your video camera, your PC, your games console, your music and video store, and your on-demand video player.
"A single, wireless system in the home—one box at its hub—may manage your media, your communication, your computing, and your household security and utilities. The battle in the home will see the telcos and cable operators in the red corner trying to build a box to connect your TV and the rest of your home to broadband—a passport to an on-demand world.
"And in the blue corner—surprise, surprise—Sky, creating an enormous memory in your Sky Plus box, in which you—or they!—can store thousands of hours of treasures, a box Sky can build to be your home hub supplying all the functionality I outlined earlier.
"So watch out over the next decade for a new battle of the boxes, with BT and Sky likely to be the two Goliaths fighting it out to the death. The next generation of technology will pose substantial issues for policy makers and public service broadcasters alike."
Birt said homes with personal video recorders were undermining the advertising-supported model that had long sustained much of commercial television.
He warned regulators that current electronic programme guides were "not even currently fit-for-purpose and will be antediluvian in an on-demand world". "Compare the current generation of slow, clunky television EPGs with Google. If I want to know which live football matches are on TV tonight I have to embark on a slow, manual search through multiple channels. With Google I can find a needle in a haystack in less than a second—the fruits of a search of literally billions of items.
"So time to think again about not only the nature of the search and navigation gateway into the television digital universe, but who should control it? How can we ensure a level playing field for all programme and service providers? Should regulators encourage competing search and navigation systems in the television domain? How will the viewer find ready access to the public service offerings?"
He went on: "The awesome challenge for the next generation of leaders in public service broadcasting will be to maintain universality amidst fragmentation. The task: to reach out to every kind of individual in an interactive media world which will offer an increasingly personalised viewing experience, in which the old linear broadcast channels will become progressively less important.
"How to engage the nation's children in such a world? Or young Muslims? The public service tradition in the UK has never been found wanting for long. And I have no doubt that imaginative, unexpected solutions to these enormous and historic challenges will be found."
In his Independent column, Greg Dyke, Birt's successor at the BBC, said the speech had failed to deliver. "He didn't tell us how he wanted the governance system of the BBC changed, even though he was critical of how it had operated over the years. He didn't tell us if he wanted top-slicing of the licence fee to help fund public service programming on Channel 4, although he implied the channel could be in real financial problems in the new world.
"And, most seriously of all, he didn't attempt to tell us how to cope with the dramatic technological developments which he outlined and said would change the lives of all in the television industry in the next decade. He warned that television on demand via broadband would transform the industry but offered no suggestions on how to cope with it.
"This was unlike John Birt, a man who is normally only too keen to offer solutions as well as identify problems. It was only when he was interviewed in another festival session the next morning that he explained that, as the Prime Minister's strategy advisor, he wasn't able to offer policy alternatives to the problems he had identified, presumably because it could be embarrassing to the Government. In which case, why do the lecture at all?"
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