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Select Committee on Broadcasting Minutes of Evidence



ANNEX 2

FLEXTECH PLC

  Flextech plc is a cable and satellite programme operation which currently has interests in 16 Channels which are distributed to over 25 million viewers in the UK and other Western European countries. Its portfolio is a mixture of wholly owned and managed channels, plus a series of strategic investments which include stakes in programming and content providers. Flextech has also formed a joint venture with BBC Worldwide to launch up to eight subscription channels in the UK.

FLEXTECH'S ROLE IN "THE PARLIAMENTARY CHANNEL"

  Flextech does not hold any interests in The Parliamentary Channel. The Company manages and operates the service on behalf of the consortium of British Cable companies who own and fund the Channel.

  Flextech first became involved in the service in 1991 when (as United Artists Programming) it initiated a trial project to provide gavel to gavel coverage of "Yesterday in the Commons" which broadcast on a number of cable networks. In 1992, following the success of this trial project, a consortium of Cable Operators came together and created "The Parliamentary Channel" based on the C-SPAN model in America. Flextech Television (then United Artists Progamming) were selected to manage and operate the Channel on the industry's behalf and for various technical reasons still holds the PARBUL licence on behalf of the Channel today.

  Under the direction of The Parliamentary Channel's Board of Directors, Flextech has expanded the service over the past six years to provide 115 hours of informative political programming each week Parliament is in session, as well as a Teletext service and Website dedicated to providing information on the work of Parliament. The Parliamentary Channel is now self funding.


Memorandum submitted by NTL

INTRODUCTION

  NTL is one of the UK's leading telecommunications and entertainment companies. NTL began operations in the UK over five years ago and is now a major integrated communications company.

  Our cable division, operating as CableTel, offers residential telephone, television and internet services to over 2.1 million homes under franchise with over 400,000 current subscribers. The further consolidation of the cable industry, through NTL's purchase of Diamond Cable Communications plc, Comcast UK and the UK cable interests of Vision networks (ComTel Ltd and Telecential Communications) means that the vast majority of franchises are now held by three roughly equal players, NTL, Telewest and CWC.

  These acquisitions give NTL access to 5.2 million franchise homes with 850,000 residential telephone customers, 700,000 cable television customers and 85,000 business telephone lines. NTL's innovative marketing strategy has led to significant penetration customer interest in our services. By the end of 1998 NTL will be the UK's largest cable company when measured by number of residential customers.

HISTORY OF THE PARLIAMENTARY CHANNEL

  In 1992 the major UK cable operators came together to form The Parliamentary Channel (TPC). NTL supported this development, demonstrating our commitment through investing and participating in TPC's expansion. Since 1992 the industry has put in more than £4 million of loan funding to ensure the development of TPC.

  While NTL is certainly a commercial, indeed highly entrepreneurial company, our support for TPC was based less on potential future commercial or profitable opportunities than on our belief that access to full coverage of the Parliamentary process is of benefit and interest to our customers. On this basis, it makes good business sense to fund the development of the channel. TPC is run as a non-profit venture, without any public money or sponsorship.

  TPC was, and is, modelled on the two phenomenally successful C-SPAN channels created by the major US cable operators. These operators aggressively and publicly supported and funded the development of the channel. Like C-SPAN, TPC's role is to provide full coverage of the legislature at work. In the UK this means live gavel-to-gavel coverage of Commons business, full recorded coverage of the House of Lords (when time permits) and selected Parliamentary Committees.

THE FUTURE OF THE PARLIAMENTARY CHANNEL

  NTL continues to push for an enhanced and further developed TPC. Recently, NTL proposed to the board of TPC that we should take over the ownership and management of TPC for the indefinite future. This proposal includes a commitment to fund, for at least the next two years, TPC's entire operating budget—some £2\6 million per year. This would allow, at the very least, a maintenance of the current service level. In fact we would expect to offer additional features and services. Over time we would look to offer TPC to a far greater proportion of the population through our involvement in digital terrestrial, digital cable and digital radio broadcasting. In fact, the digital era should bring great advances in Parliamentary coverage.

  The BBC has come forward with its own proposals for a Parliamentary channel funded through the licence fee. NTL welcomes the BBC's involvement, however we believe there is little merit in duplicating our coverage of Parliament. While the BBC is, of course, a world renowned broadcaster, we believe the UK cable industry, and in particular NTL, has a lot to offer. Only cable is in a position to:

    —  develop truly regionalised coverage of the democratic process through our local franchise network. This will be particularly significant once the Scottish Parliament and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland are in place;

    —  offer, through own Internet Service Provider, full coverage of Parliamentary proceedings over the Internet; and

    —  create true Parliamentary interactivity through our two day broadband interactive digital cable networks.

  NTL has no interest in reneging on or abandoning its commitment to the future funding and development of TPC. Our commitment to being part of the continuing development of TPC has never been stronger.

  We note that this hearing is part of a wider inquiry into the "Development of Parliamentary Broadcasting"—NTL would be keen to participate. In particular, the Committee may be interested to hear how our expertise in the field of digital broadcasting may be used to enhance coverage of Parliament.


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 4 November 1998