Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Chris Smith

For Digital News December 2000. Chris Smith By Kate Bulkley.

Kate interviewed Chris Smith, Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, in his Trafalgar Square office on a rainy evening that happened to coincide with calls from the opposition for his resignation over his role in who should run the National Lottery.

The row over the BBC moving the 9 o'clock news to compete head on with ITV's plans to move its nightly newscast back to 10 pm was also causing concern in the office of the Culture Secretary as well as at the Independent Television Commission. If the longest-serving broadcast Secretary seemed a bit pre-occupied, he was his usual courteous self. After settling himself and his guest in the comfy chairs in his office, he fielded questions about the state of digital TV.

Q. So are you happy with the way that digital TV in this country has developed so far?

A. The basic thing to say is that the take-up has gone far faster and further than I think anyone had expected. I think over 20% of households are actually connected to digital television is some shape or form. Both digital satellite and digital terrestrial are growing. Digital cable has probably been the least active so far, but potentially has such enormous possibilities especially with interactivity that I think it has to join the fast growth rate of others as well.

Q. Do you worry that digital by satellite is the service that has really taken off, what I mean is the bulk of digital is there, BSkyB will have some 5 million subscribers by this method.

A. Yes, well they (Sky) are not there yet. They have been moving very fast. I think that is partly because they have a very comprehensive offer for people. And also because they had an existing target base of their analogue subscribers to go for. And with an attitude to switch off their analogue signal at a relatively early date it has helped drive the process. I think though that what we are seeing is increasing take-up amongst those households that are likely to want to have subscription TV. What we aren't seeing at the moment is a switch to digital amongst households that just want free to air television and that is where the bigger effort has to be focused in the next three or four years. It is to persuade people who don't particularly wan to subscribe and are reasonably happy having a relatively small choice of programmes that none the less there are advantages in making the switch to digital.

Q. So is there anything you want to see any of the operators, Sky or any of the other broadcasters, do, or that you are trying to get them to do, to move people toward digital who may, as you say, not want to pay for more channels?

A. Well, I think ONDigital in particular have moved quite fast with the development of their Internet access provision and that brings in another selling point of course. One of the things I have always felt is that access to the Internet through your television set is a very user- friendly way to move into the Internet age. For many households where people would be a little bit daunted by the prospect of having a PC and a modem. This is something special. If it's the friendly old television in the corner of the living room then it's much easier for them to say "Yes, that's an opportunity for me." And so I think offering not just a range of programmes but Internet access as well has been a smart move on ONDigital's part.

Q. Are you happy with the content on digital, from say Carlton and Granada (owners of ONDigital). I think of Carlton Food Network and Granada's Men and Motors, which has been called Men and Hairdryers by (TeleWest CEO) Adam Singer and it wasn't a compliment. What do you think about the digital offerings?

A. I think many of the channels which are available on digital platforms are still at a very young stage and will take time to develop into something rather better. It's a lesson that the BBC is learning. I think that everyone would agree that the early days of BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge and BBC News 24 were not outstanding television. They have been getting steadily better and the proposals that Greg Dyke has intimated seems to indicate that he wants to take them further and offer something really rather exciting. Quite a number of the things that Sky or that ONDigital has on offer are not the most brilliant television, but some just very small niche channels or series of programmes are already attracting their audiences and a loyal following. So it's a mixed picture but I think the potential is certainly there. I have always been very concerned to make sure that more does not mean worse. That we don't have a wonderful range of choice but it's a choice between rather poor quality programmes. I want it to be a choice between good quality programmes.

Q. So like Bruce Springsteen's song, "57 channels and nothing on"

A. Exactly.

Q. Digital switchover. You have set a goal of 2006 to 2010. Have you changed this target or narrowed it at all given what BSkyB is projecting for example in their early analogue switchoff date?

A. 2006 to 2010 is a time range I set out in my RTS speech over a year ago now. I believe that that is attainable and certainly the rapidity of take-up so far is good from that point of view. A lot will depend on how far the cost of equipment falls. Obviously the give-away of set top boxes by Sky and ONDigital provided you sign up to their package of programmes has been one of the driving forces of the whole progress on take-up. But at the moment if you went out and bought a set top box or an integrated digital TV set the cost would be reasonably high. We will inevitably see costs fall. I hope particularly the cost of integrated sets because carrying on forever and ever with the set top box is not the best option. But I think we need to see over the next two to three years some of those prices coming down quite fast if we are going to see the progress that I'd like to see and that I suspect the industry would like to see to move towards that target time frame.

Q. When you talk about analogue switch-off timetables, what is the level of digital coverage you want to see? Is it a universal access policy meaning every TV set in the country? Every home? And does perhaps digital satellite offer the least cost way to achieve the biggest take-up at the lowest cost?

A. I think what we need is a range of platforms: Satellite, terrestrial, cable and possibly also through telephone lines as a fourth option. I think you need all of those options. If you lost any one of them it would diminish the whole. What we do now know is that it will be almost impossible to reach 100% of the population with digital terrestrial television. The cost of setting up the transmission system for the last 5% to 10% would be prohibitive. So we need to look at imaginative ways of bridging that gap. What we can't do is to turn off 10% of the nation's television one night and say, "Sorry no more television." This would not be a sensible or astute policy. So we need to find imaginative ways so that 5% to 10% can receive, at no additional cost to them, the digital service that they would otherwise have been able to get if they lived somewhere else.

Q. So do you have any ideas?

A. That is work that is underway at the moment and the solution may vary from location to location as to what is the best option. But we need to have that extent of coverage in place before we can move to digital switchover.

Q. So you won't even set the precise date for digital switchover until you know that you can reach 100% of the TV sets in this country by some digital means.

A. 100% of the TV sets which means 99.4% of the homes. So we need to know that we can reach those sets and we also need to know that it's going to be reasonably affordable for the people who own those sets to buy into the option.

Q. Would the government think about subsidising those people who can't or won't switchover?

A. The problem with offering any sort of subsidy is that would immediately turn off the tap of people voluntarily subscribing so that is not an issue we could possibily consider at this stage.

Q. Do you feel that you will have technical solutions and ones that will be low cost enough to work?

A. There will be solutions because it is technically possible to do. We just need to find the best in each case.

Q. The digital terrestrial multiplexes are owned by a wide range of players. Do you think there will be consolidations among these companies and would that be a good thing in your view?

A. Among the digital terrestrial players you have the public service broadcasters and their contribution will remain distinctive. It has to remain distinctive. The BBC in particular has a responsibility to provide a number of free digital channels and it is very important that they continue. (These channels) are in many ways "the extra" -as well as better picture quality, wider screens and better sound- of digital. It is the extra free to air offering that is the thing that can be offered to those people who don't really want to take out a subscription. It is very important that they continue that work and they have multi-plex space in order to do so. I think for the rest, we are seeing the component bits of ONDigital coming closer and closer together and to me that is no bad thing.

Q. The new Broadcasting Act. There are a number of thorny issues, like do you regulate based on competition or content control. How do you regulate to control or try to control the Internet?

A. These are all issues that are we are addressing at the moment. We are planning on publishing our white paper in November or December of this year. The aim is to have legislation early in the new parliament, depending on how the election comes out of course. What we are looking for here is an attempt to lighten the touch of regulations and to rationalise the alphabet soup of regulatory bodies. But at the same time not to throw out the public interest baby with the bathwater... Sorry I mixed metaphors appallingly there.

Q. (Laughing) Well, I've always liked the image of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A. Well, I was worried about it taking a bath in alphabet soup (laughs). But what we need to do is to ensure that where it is right to protect the public interest by special provision because it is broadcasting that we do so. Now, what I can't do is give you a pre-emption on what the white paper will actually come out and say. But it is in that area of how you best protect the public interest, and to what extent you seek to protect the public interest, that most of the discussion has been.

Q. So you will eliminate some of these diverse regulatory bodies? At the moment it is, as you say, an alphabet soup of the ITC, the Broadcasting Standards Council, Oftel What do you propose?

A. We certainly want to rationalise the system. What I can't tell you now is what our specific proposals will be. But rationalisation and simplification of the system is one of the goals that we seek to achieve.

Q. In your own mind you know that MP3 is doing to the record companies and basically how difficult it is to control content on the Net. How do you regulate this?

A. There will remain a difference between what we can broadly describe as broadcasting where a particular group of people providing information and entertainment to The Many. As opposed to pure Internet communication, which is a person or people communicating with a person or people. There is a distinction. It's a rough distinction and the boundaries are becoming fuzzy, but there is still a need for distinction. In terms of general communications across the Internet because it is global and because you can put anything on it from anywhere, it is obviously difficult to produce a strict regulation. That is an issue we will address in the white paper and we will come forward with some suggestions on what you can and can't do in this respect.

Q. Difficult this. I did a story recently about streaming media on the Net and there are today digital quality cartoons and worse being Webcast, the only real hurdle is download speeds and those can only get faster.

A. It is difficult.

Q. Is there a threat to culture from these technologies and can you protect British culture?

A. I don't think that there is an instrinsic threat to culture. What there is is the possibility of making available a much wider diet of what one might call low culture: easy-listening, easy-watching, un-challenging drama and so on. It has its place. It's useful and it is part of the general mix of all that is available to people, but at the same time it is very important that there is also material that does challenge and does enhance people's spirits and gives something special and different to people. That must be in the mix too. I see this breadth of opportunity. I see it much more as an opportunity than a threat. It means that for example we can have whole channels available to people that are all about high culture, about fine arts, about things that aren't necessarily easy-viewing and easy-listening. I very much welcome that. What I wouldn't want to see is because a channel exists that does that for a particular niche audience that therefore the general entertainment channel like BBC1, for example, abandoned all such programmes. It's very important that they are part of that general mix.

Q. So you would argue for the continuation of the license fee for the BBC to ensure that we have those kind of niche channels that would otherwise find funding hard going.

A. I think one of the roles of the BBC has to be acting as a benchmark of quality and it must never abandon that role. That in itself is a justification for having a public funding mechanism such as the license fee in place.

Q. So how digitised are you?

A. I have digital satellite right here in the office and Janet Anderson just down the corridor has digital terrestrial.

Q. What do you think?

A. Because of the nature of my job I get to watch so little television that I'm not a typical user I suspect. But I think it certainly broadens choice and it certainly offers things that otherwise wouldn't be available to view. I welcome that. There is certain scope for improvement but it's early days. It enhances what is available to the viewer and in a few years time it will enhance it even more.

Q. Sounds like you may be a canidate for the TiVO technolgy. Have you heard of it?

A. I have heard of it. It sounds like it might help but it doesn't create more hours in the day! It does however make it possible to choose your own programme at a time you want. It also presents some challenges to commerical broadcasters by taking out the ads. There are issues to be addressed there but not yet.

Q. If everyone had a TiVO box we wouldn't have this big fight about news at 10 or news at 9. People would just call it up.

A. Yes, but I would suspect there would still be quite a large number of people who would be apt to sit and watch a series of programmes the order of which was being determined for them. There is still a very large number of people who can't even programme their video machines.

Q. But you are not one of them I hope?

A. I can programme my video machine. But I suspect old habits will die hard, but they will change.

Q. The growth of digital services and the further fragmentation of audiences is going to impact the BBC's audience size. What would you like to see to ensure a balanced digital diet for people at an affordable price?

A. My long term goal is for the viewer or listener at home to be able to make a hassle-free choice between different platforms, different programmes, different orders of programmes, different camera angles, different ways of repeating bits of what they particularly like. I want them to be able to have that range of choice and to be able to have ready access to that range of choice and not to have pay completely through the nose. That's the aim. It will be some years before we get there, but I think we are definitely on the way to that objective.

Q. And as a corollary to that, you do want to keep some of the content at what you have described as at a higher level?

A. The key drivers here are choice, plurality of voice and quality of content. Those are the things that must be maintained if the consumer is going to get a good deal out of all this. Potentially it's there but we have to put the right framework in place to ensure that it happens.

Q. And of course no other country has done this. You are leading the way in the UK.

A. We can learn some things from other countries but there is a lot we have to invent ourselves, that is true.

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