Freeview success brings D-Day forward

BBC:The switch to digital is drawing ever closer thanks to Freeview’s stunning statistics

When people reflect on Greg Dyke’s explosive term as director general of the BBC, they will surely pick out the launch of Freeview, the low-cost route to digital television, as his most significant achievement.

It did not arrive out of the blue, but was part of the heritage he brought with him from ITV, where his fierce opposition to BSkyB was forged: those who worked with him then remember Dyke plotting a free-to-air alternative ten years ago.

The confirmation that Freeview homes have passed the three million mark, after just 17 months of marketing, assisted by explosive growth of 866,000 in the run-up to Christmas, is the talk of the industry.

It is probably the most extraordinary media statistic I have seen in 20 years.

And it is the key to pushing multichannel homes over the magic 50% mark, with a lot more to come. When it reaches 70%, perhaps by 2007, it will become unstoppable.

The Government really ought to be in Dyke’s debt.

Digital switchover has suddenly, to my surprise, become a likelihood, taken for granted in policy debates, as opposed to an objective. It will be executed on an area-by-area basis.

And it is clearly worrying BSkyB, which saw its share of digital homes reduced to 57.5% from 63% in the last three months of 2003.

One interesting statistic provided by Ofcom’s quarterly review is that 15% of homes with Freeview adapters already have Sky, so they’re buying them for another television.

No cannibalisation there, although you wonder if this is where those who churn out of BSkyB end up.

The Freeview bandwagon is clearly going to continue to roll.

Early enthusiasts such as Flextech are already recycling programming from their basic pay channels on BSkyB, and other broadcasters will have to face up to the issue. Five’s share in Freeview homes is now nine per cent.

Industry executives expect that the digital receivers, already down to £50 from £99, will become ubiquitous. Half a million homes have IDTV sets, anyway. But the enthusiasm is leading people to some illogical conclusions.

For example, one of the assumptions of David Elstein’s Broadcasting Policy Group report for the Conservatives is that, once digital switchover occurs and we’re all multichannel, the BBC licence fee will become untenable, and there will be a public revolt.

This could be fanciful thinking. I’ve been an enthusiastic multichannel home owner since Sky started broadcasting, and a frequent pay-per-view purchaser. But the BBC remains a cornerstone. I regard the licence fee rather like the road tax – I don’t like paying it, but it would never occur to me not to do so.

What annoys me is when the BBC spends more marketing its new digital channels than on producing its programmes, the worst example being the sad case of the under-funded The Alan Clark Diaries on BBC4.

The Top-Up TV proposal for a £7.99 a month basic pay service, and an adapter with a pay option, is currently causing the Freeview pioneers distress. They think it will confuse the message. They also think this will strip away another Freeview goal – protecting the BBC from subscription.

But it is Canute-like thinking, which must be washed away by market-oriented Ofcom.

Top-Up TV, led by BSkyB veterans David Chance and Ian West, both shrewd negotiators, may be on to something that is not quite as niche or modest as they claim, lots of people won’t pay £10 a month for more choice and this is something BSkyB must understand.

There is no earthly reason to oppose more choice from a competing network.

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