BBC gets green light to launch high definition channel this year

BBC gets green light to launch high definition channel this year

· Trust and media watchdog give service their blessing
· Ofcom expects little adverse effect on rivals

Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Wednesday September 19, 2007
The Guardian

The BBC is due to launch a high definition TV channel later this year after the media watchdog Ofcom and the BBC Trust yesterday signalled their blessing.As it prepared to meet today to hear director general Mark Thompson’s cost-cutting plans and consider a handful of new cases where BBC phone-ins have misled viewers, the trust published its verdict on the new channel before a final decision next week.

Under the regulatory regime introduced earlier this year, any proposed service requires a public value test by the BBC Trust, including for the first time a market impact assessment by Ofcom. Yesterday the trust said the BBC should launch the channel, which will run between 3pm and midnight every day and broadcast the best of the BBC’s high definition output, as soon as possible. Ofcom said it would have little adverse effect on commercial rivals.

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Programmes already made in the format, which promises pictures four times sharper than conventional broadcasts, include Planet Earth, Bleak House and much of the BBC’s live sports coverage. Increasingly, big budget drama, documentaries and sport are being filmed in high definition as a matter of course.Flat screen HD-ready sets are becoming increasingly popular but the future of the medium, which enthusiasts have hailed as the equivalent of the shift from black and white to colour, remains confused.

Sky and the cable operator Virgin Media have launched high definition services, which cost subscribers an additional £10 or £15 a month and require an HD-compatible set-top box and television set.

The new BBC channel will also be available on FreeSat, the free to air satellite service due to be launched next year, and in a cut down version on Freeview.

The BBC proposed that the Freeview channel should initially run between 2am and 6am, allowing viewers to record programmes to watch later. To free up space for the channel, it proposes to take down BBC4, BBC Parliament and three interactive streams overnight.

Public service broadcasters, convinced high definition will become the new standard, have been lobbying Ofcom to carve out a free slice of the spectrum that will be released after the analogue TV signal is switched off in 2012 for high definition broadcasts on Freeview. But the regulator remains committed to auctioning off the spectrum and is attempting to engineer a compromise solution which would see enough space made available for at least four high definition channels.

The trust said it was concerned the limited nature of the Freeview service could restrict its appeal. It said the BBC should review its plans early in 2008 once the regulatory position became clearer, with the intention of extending the full nine-hour service to Freeview as soon as possible.

Mr Thompson will today update the trust on his plans to plug the £2bn “black hole” between the BBC’s digital ambitions over the next six years and the licence fee settlement granted by the government, as well as making “efficiency savings” of 18% over the same period. Insiders believe he has concluded that measures such as major cuts to middle management in news and current affairs and big cuts in the factual department will be enough to free cash to reinvest in new areas.

He is also expected to update the trust on the crisis in viewer confidence arising from revelations that some of the BBC’s biggest programmes, including Children in Need and Comic Relief, had faked competition winners. It is understood a handful of less high profile examples have come to light where viewers and listeners were misled during BBC phone-ins.


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