Stepwise migration 

29 January 2009

digital britain – interim report: Government outlines plans for UK’s digital transition

Today saw the publication of (Lord) Stephen Carter’s interim report entitled “Digital Britain”, which in one sense is a government response to Ofcom’s previous report; indeed “Digital Britain” is somewhat controversial because it wasn’t actually produced by Ofcom itself, meaning that Ofcom was sidelined when it came to defining media policy.

But given Ofcom’s recent track record of throwing numerous ideas up in the air in the vain hope that some of them might stick (and perhaps not having properly researched the fundamentals of some of these ideas either, such as the infamous BBC “top-slicing” proposal), you can hardly blame the government for ultimately choosing this route.

The Digital Britain report is handily divided into six sections which are relatively short (presumably useful for busy cabinet ministers with short attention spans), with Sections 2 and 3 (Digital Networks and Digital Content) perhaps being the most relevant to the media industry.

As unfortunately seems to be a recurring theme nowadays, anyone expecting a wholesale rip-up of the Channel 3 (ITV) franchises was always going to be disappointed apart from the possibility of regional news being awarded separate franchises along with the expected reorganisation of Channel 4.

It also seems reasonably obvious that a fair amount of this report was written as recently as last week as previously stated by Lord Carter himself, given how many of Ofcom’s recent almost-finalised ideas (together with the latest Channel 4-BBC Worldwide overtures) have been shoehorned into its conclusions.

Perhaps predictably the case, it’s the subject of DAB digital radio that is the recipient of much “fence sitting”, with Government policy supposedly committed to the DAB standard with the proviso that a trigger point of “50% of radio listening is to digital platforms” (Section 2, Page 20) is reached “by 2015” (the intended migration target date).

The assumption seems to be that DAB will be the dominant digital listening platform by that date, though there’s no word of what will happen if this isn’t the case apart from the usual “Work with the industry” rationale to achieve the intended end result. And no clue as to what will happen if the “industry” fails to deliver for whatever reason(s).

Just as disappointing perhaps is a lack of clear direction in relation to the future of public service television broadcasting, such as the terms of trade currently established between the broadcasters and independent producers (part of the Communications Act 2003) that now await further evaluation (Section 3, Page 50, Action 15).

The general tone of this section seems too overly optimistic; any intention of a future terms of trade review seems primarily directed towards “new entrants to the market” (read: online media) as opposed to the urgent review that is required in the light of a weakening economic outlook and to preserve commercially-funded public service content.

Of course an urgent review could still happen, but this report perhaps predictably fails to acknowledge the terms of trade having been tilted too much towards the independent producers, which led to a period of prosperity for a fortunate few but has now broken the business model for the established commercial broadcasters in a time of recession.

It will be interesting to see how future government policy handles any slow backpedaling that may have to be performed in order to rescue the established broadcasters, but this particular installment of the consultation saga gives few if any clues as to an obvious way forward on this issue.

Likewise we will also have to wait for the final (presumably non-interim) report to discover the ultimate fate of Channel 4 in this openly-touted alternative public service broadcaster proposal beyond the mere intention of Channel 4 being, to quote, “the broadcast licensee within such an entity”.

A win of sorts for Channel 4 then.

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