1 September 2001

Broadcasting has changed. A revolution began in 1987, when satellite television arrived in the UK, first with Sky Channel and SuperChannel, then with the ill-fated British Satellite Broadcasting.

The four or five extra channels Sky and BSB brought introduced something new to Britain – thematic television. Previously, Brits had got by on four general entertainment channels. While two of them – the second services from the BBC and IBA – may have been designed to appeal to viewers passed over by their old relations, they remained general entertainment channels with something for everyone.

BSB and Sky changed that. Both featured an entertainment channel (Sky Channel, later Sky One, and Galaxy) that was exclusively entertainment driven – no sops to minority interests or boring news.

They also introduced something astounding – sports channels with nothing but sport, news channels with nothing but news, film channels with nothing but films.

Fast-forward more than a decade, BSB is gone but there are 5 general entertainment channels to choose from via an ordinary set, 30 via terrestrial digital and around 200 by digital satellite.

How does a channel stand out from another in this new mêlée? There is only one possibility – by having a Unique Selling Point.

This includes themed channels – the History Channel for historical programmes, Discovery in many flavours for science, channels for ‘lads’, channels for comedy, reruns and women – you name it, a channel exists, targeted at a specific minority of the audience.

In future, all channels will need a USP if they want to stand out. Every channel will need something – almost anything – to hook and retain viewers.

BBC-1 has two of them – quality that shows almost all the time, and a commitment to regionalism in news and programming.

BBC-2 weighs in with that staple of the BBC, quality. It also provides a highbrow mix of – dare we say it? – upper middle class arts and science programming and intelligent youth entertainment.

Channel 4 is on less good ground. It’s response to the USP question has been to divide into three parts – FilmFour for alternative movies, E4 for entertainment, and the original Channel 4 with its remit of ‘general programming with a twist’. Perhaps, though, the difficulty in defining what C4 is will be its saviour in the cut-and-thrust of new UK TV.

S4C has a truly unique selling point – both in its quality Welsh-language programming and its welcome and well-spent state funding support.

Channel 5 will suffer in a multichannel age. A policy of going downmarket and specialising in soft porn is fine on terrestrial, but when head to head with, say, Sky One, it will find that the Murdoch channel has deeper pockets and a willingness to go lower in the pursuit of an audience. The soft porn gimmick will turn away as many as it attracts, and then lose those who did tune in, to the raunchier thematic soft porn channels like Playboy TV.

This leaves poor old ITV. For more than 40 years its two USPs were regional identity and popularism. Unfortunately for ITV’s media group owners, they have allowed these USPs to slip away.

The popularism is fine, but again, the audience is likely to find that an easier to locate fix of entertainment is waiting at Sky One, Paramount Comedy, Bravo or even UK Gold. Coronation Street alone is not a USP, despite what ITV may think.

The regionalism, ITV’s ace card since 1956 and something the BBC was always envious of, was mysteriously and almost absentmindedly squandered by ITV. At some point in the past decade, the BBC stole the crown of ‘Britain’s regional station’ out from under the nose of ITV. Now, when an event happens locally, people turn on the television, press ‘1’ and watch Look North, Look East or South Today and see their locality covered by the BBC.

And so to the future. In ten years’ time, where will the existing five terrestrial channels be?

BBC-1 and 2 (along with 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 if all goes according to plan, each with its own USP) will still be with us. Channel Four will be providing much the same alternative mix, perhaps with more themed channels. In doing so, it will use the leverage gained now in being a terrestrial channel against Sky One, stealing more of the top Sky programmes and converting E4 into a category-killer for youth entertainment, relegating Sky One to showing dross from Fox America – the position it began in.

Channel 5 will have gone. A channel by this name may still exist, but it will not resemble the C5 we know now.

And then there’s ITV. With no USP, the nation’s favourite programme but little else, and in the embarrassing position of being so late on to digital satellite having backed the 3-legged donkey against the stallion, where could they possibly be?

In ten years time, they will be Britain’s most popular channel again. They will be having a golden age. ITV will mean quality regional programming presented by people from each region to the people of each region.

This is because they will return to the spirit of ITV in the 1960s. And that will be their USP.

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