Breaking free 

1 January 2003

In the media, it is very rare for a story to break and be a complete surprise to everyone, especially when it is a story about the media.

People who work in the media are usually quite savvy when it comes to knowing what goes on in other media organisations. They usually either know if something is about to happen, or what the possibilities might be.

Sky Digital

Which is why the day of Wednesday 12 March 2003 caught most people by surprise. It all started at 10:56 am, when word reached our ears here at Transdiffusion Action Central that the BBC was going to announce later that day that they were to pull their channels off the Sky Digital platform.

This caused quite a bit of consternation amongst us, but not quite as much as the real story that followed just 70 minutes later. It was then that the BBC actually announced they were moving their channels to Astra 2D and were not going to be encrypting them, meaning they were not going to use Sky’s encryption and conditional access software.

That might not sound like much to the uninitiated, but to those of us in media circles, this was a massive surprise, even a shock. This bombshell had suddenly blown the whole situation between the terrestrial channels in the UK and Ireland, and Sky Digital, wide open.

Almost immediately, the analysis began, as to not only whether it was possible, but also what the situation was going to be with certain rights issues. We analysed the footprint of the satellite transmission, and the space available on the satellite. We checked and crosschecked everything. So, what did we find?

Well, 2D certainly is fairly tightly focused onto the UK and Ireland, although there is reception in parts of France and the Low Countries in Europe. However, there is an important point to remember when it comes to satellite television and its reception.

In Europe there are several major platform operators, at least 1 in each major area. They will heavily market the channels they provide to potential and actual subscribers in their region of Europe. They do not market channels that are available from the multitude of other satellites that are available in the skies above.

It is only those who have the inclination to find out more about the world of satellite television beyond the home platform that are likely to have purchased the necessary equipment to receive signals from as many satellites as they can, that are most likely to watch these transmissions. Just like any other set of enthusiasts, this group is very small, numbering far less than 1% of any potential audience in these areas.

The only exception to this is our near neighbours, Ireland. They too are tuned in to Sky Digital, but have had a unique situation regarding UK television channels. Irish cable and MMDS delivery systems have made a point of deliberately receiving UHF overspill transmissions from various parts of the UK.

Indeed, BBC1 and BBC2 are available on Sky Digital in Ireland on the Family Pack. The addition of the remaining BBC channels to the EPG in Ireland will be quite warmly welcomed there.

It is not hard to figure out that every other terrestrial broadcaster in the UK and Ireland are without doubt following developments in this saga with interest. Well, all except one.

S4C have already gone Free To Air in the UK, but are not on the EPG in Ireland, and they are available at different EPG numbers in different parts of the UK, 104 in Wales and 184 in the rest of the UK.

Whilst I cannot pretend to understand the technical ins and outs of how this was done, surely it means that the BBC’s request for a small piece of software to be written so that the local BBC and ITV1 stations are in the right places on the EPG is not unfeasible, or indeed asking a lot.

What this story really does highlight though is the inadequacy of current broadcasting regulation, and the fact that seemingly the new Communications Bill will do little overall to rectify the situation.

There are some areas where the new bill does the right job, but others where it seems far too inadequate. If we have learned anything from the years since the Broadcasting Act of 1990, it is that light touch regulation doesn’t work, and never will, because broadcasting companies will flout it with monotonous regularity.

I hope that the Communications Bill going through parliament at the moment can be toughened up even more, to make OFCOM what it should be, a watchdog with real teeth. It may not be what some broadcasters want, but it is what broadcasting badly needs.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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