This week we were confronted with two visions of the future. One was the possibility that BBC services might eventually be delivered purely over the internet. The other was the risk that ITV may not renew its Channel 3 licences and cease to be a public service broadcaster.
So how realistic or likely are these possibilities?
The possibility of an “internet only” BBC needs to be put in context. It was not a threat to switch off Freeview and close major linear services.
Rather the director-general’s speech looked at where technology might eventually take society to and what the BBC’s role would be.
An internet-only BBC would only work if everybody had access to high speed, reliable, unmetered broadband.
There are still rural areas with poor connectivity. There are those who don’t have the internet at home on grounds of cost. And there are those, especially some older or vulnerable people, who simply do not or cannot go online.
The growing number of Smart TVs and the role of IPlayer inevitably mean the internet will become even more important.
Sky, of course, is looking at a future without dishes through Sky Glass.
It is not hard to see how more and more people might principally access BBC linear services online rather than off air.
But does that mean becoming “internet only”?
Well, only if consumers lead broadcasters in that direction and only if other means of broadcasting are no longer deemed necessary or viable.
As long as a significant number of people rely on Freeview or satellite services they will exist.
And the public service broadcaster will need to provide services on these platforms for as long as they are required by significant numbers of people – even if online might become the dominant platform.
Then, were terrestrial TV to be facing closure, a full support scheme would be necessary for those who might be left behind.
This is not unusual.
For years some in the radio industry have wanted FM radio switched off. But significant numbers are yet to be won over by digital radio, BBC Sounds and other ways of listening.
Even turning off AM is easier said than done.
Similarly, just over a decade ago great efforts were made to help the elderly and vulnerable through digital switchover – long after most of us wondered what all the fuss was about.
The concern was about more than access to technology. It was a fear, for instance, that those with poor eyesight or memory loss might find the simple operation of the equipment hard. Turn on your TV and digibox, switch to a particular input then find your channel.
Before you can imagine “Digital Switchover Ii” a prerequisite would be a portal with the simplicity of the EPG – bringing all the available services together, with guaranteed prominence for the BBC and other public service broadcasters.
This is a different question to whether the licence fee should be replaced with a household charge.
Meanwhile some civil servants are worried ITV could pull out of public service broadcasting.
The risk is that ITV could conclude that the benefits of being on Channel 3 – prominence and guaranteed spectrum – are not worth the costs.
These costs include:
- Investing in programmes, notably national and regional news, which do not lead to a commercial return.
- Tighter rules on the overall amount of advertising.
- Being unable to broadcast the main service in the STV area.
Ministers and Ofcom do need to reach decisions soon on the future licensing of Channel 3 and Channel 5.
But ultimately nearly everything ITV shows is driven by its commercial interests, even if it also has wider economic and social value.
ITV will not give up on Channel 3 anytime in the near future unless Ofcom or government ministers are foolish enough to allow this to happen through either ineptitude or imposing onerous regulations which mean the cost of a Channel 3 licence exceeds the commercial benefit.
This is the same ITV which recently doubled the length of its main evening news programme – presumably in the belief this served its commercial and corporate interests as well as those of viewers.
The real debate is about what programme obligations are realistic after the current Channel 3 licences run out and about advertising volumes.
In particular what regional news services will be provided and what level of wider provision is sustainable for Wales, Northern Ireland and Border Scotland.
But I fully expect ITV 1 to be on Channel 3 and 103 on Freeview, satellite and cable for the next 10 years.
And I would be truly shocked if the BBC is not broadcasting on Digital Terrestrial – or something truly unthinkable ever happens to the BBC itself.
PICTURED: ITV 1 and BBC logos. COPYRIGHT: ITV plc and BBC.
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