Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. Do you feel that with your own company you have enough bandwidth? Do you have enough programming really to sell yourself across the country?
  (Mr Prebble) Yes, we do. Everybody would like to have more bandwidth, but the average family watches six or seven channels. We have 53 on our platform. If you cannot find the right six or seven out of 53, then we are doing something wrong. The people who have not chosen digital television are not saying, "I'm not doing it, I'm not going there because there are not enough channels." There are other issues. In our case the biggest barrier is that people are not living in an area that has digital terrestrial coverage.

  221. What sort of percentage are not in that area?
  (Mr Prebble) Today probably still the best part of 40 per cent. So we have got to our million by addressing an average of 50 per cent of the nation over the last two years.

  222. What are the technical barriers?
  (Mr Prebble) They are all about the digital signal living alongside the existing analogue signal. We have the power to be much more aggressive and ambitious in rolling out digital terrestrial coverage than we are.

  223. So you would like, from a commercial point of view, for it to be switched off as fast as possible.
  (Mr Prebble) Yes. Absolutely that is our commercial motivation, and I think there are lots of other reasons as well.

  224. Just on OFCOM, switching to OFCOM, the FCC in Washington does not have a content provider at all. That is left to the law. Why do you think the British are so obsessed with content and regulation when you cannot regulate the Internet? Why is it that we are like that culturally. Does it bug you?
  (Mr Prebble) Maybe it is because we have a bit more to protect. I do think that there is a responsibility on all of us to try to protect, as best we can, what is best about British broadcasting in an environment where it is inevitably going to be harder to maintain standards. The fact of the matter is that as you get more plurality and people get less revenue to produce their services, they are in a more competitive environment, there is more pressure on them, and, historically, this does not tend to support quality. So I do believe that there needs to be a regulatory framework that ensures quality of programming.


  225. Let me, before I call Mr Maxton, look again at some of the issues that Mr Wyatt has been talking about and I put to you a little earlier on. There are a large number of us, including certainly myself, who advocate the abolition of the TV licences—and certainly free TV licences for all pensioners—on the grounds that a licence is a tax. It is imposed by the Government and the Government can relieve people of that tax by transferring the costs to the general tax payer—which is what is being done with several million people aged 75 and over, and I would like to see it done with large numbers more people. So that is a tax imposed by the Government and free TV licence transfers the cost of that tax. It is nearly 80 years since that tax has existed. On the other hand, if one is looking at the development of digital TV, it is the opening up—greatly to the credit of those involved—of the commercial market, which is expanding and is likely to expand exponentially. For the first time, quite possibly permanently, in this country television is going to be commercially market led. That has not brought the terrible, baneful consequences that many of us, including myself at some point, anticipated. It is one thing for the Government to relieve large numbers of people of a tax which the Government itself imposes, but it does occur to me that it is not incumbent upon a government to spend money in order to enable you or your colleagues and competitors to continue to open up the market and to make the profits that you very justifiably have gone into the market to obtain. I would be interested if you thought further about the idea—which you yourself agree relates to what would be a steeply reducing burden—for the industry to accept the burden of connecting those who cannot afford the equipment, as a result of subscriptions, to link them into it.
  (Mr Prebble) The Government in this country decided to implement the digital project by giving to a commercial operator a commercial opportunity to drive forward digital penetration and basically gave to the free-to-air broadcasters a free ride on the coat-tails of that. It is a perfectly sensible thing to do. As you yourself indicated, pretty much everybody who has the benefit of seeing the BBC digital channels does so because they have got a free set-top box from ONdigital. Every time we sell a new subscription to somebody, we are benefiting the free-to-air services and that is a perfectly sensible thing to do—and plainly we would not be in this business unless there was a real possibility that this was going to be a very attractive business. However, it is very, very difficult and expensive at the moment. We have to put a very considerable up-front subsidy into every new subscriber that we gain—and we hope to get that money back by keeping that subscriber for two or three years. The burden of doing that, even when people are willing to pay us £10 or £20 or £30 a month, is still very difficult. Our shareholders will invest more than £1 billion in this business before it starts to show a profit. The notion that one could put an additional burden, certainly at this stage, to provide these devices to people without the prospect of getting revenue from them is, I fear, not realistic.

  226. You are in business to make money and I think that is a perfectly creditable thing to do. That is what business is about: launching a project, doing things which you hope will find a market, and then making a good profit out of it. That is the way any efficient economy works. But every new project has initially very, very heavy launch and build-up costs. That is the way these things work: you speculate in the hope of accumulating. Some people lose their nerve. When ITV was launched, Associated Newspapers were so appalled at what appeared to be difficulties in being profitable that they indulged in the folly of getting rid of their shares in an ITV company. When Sky Television, as it was, was launched, people thought that Mr Murdoch was heading for a major disaster, instead of having now, as he seems to have done, an enormous success. So the fact that launch costs and build-up costs are substantial is common to every speculative business. I quite understand that that is something that you want to emphasise, but it is a fact, is it not? And you—and, as I say, I make no criticism, quite the reverse—are only in there because you hope that, in return for providing what you regard as a good service, you—and I do not mean you personally, although I hope you personally—will make a great deal of money and therefore there might be certain consequences that will follow.
  (Mr Prebble) Quite right. Sometimes we feel like a charity but we are actually not one. I was not attempting to do any special pleading. Absolutely, we are in business to make money, and we entirely expect that that will happen over a period. I think you will understand why I suggest that it would be very difficult to accept an additional burden in these very difficult early years. While taking on board everything you have said, I think one ought also to take on board that many of the factors that will determine the success or otherwise of DTT have proven to be much more difficult than was anticipated in good faith by anybody. I come back to an example, the issue of coverage. Nobody believed that it would be as difficult as it has proven to be. It is a difficult business trying to address only 50 per cent of an available market.

Mr Maxton

  227. Can I come back to this question of the cost of maybe giving everybody a free box, and give a small illustration. I was one of the first Members of Parliament to buy a mobile telephone. It was bulky, the battery lasted for about an hour and a half before it ran out, and it cost me £2,500. With the last one, the battery lasts for six days, I got the phone as part of a deal with BT—not because I am a Member of Parliament but simply because that was the deal being offered—and it cost me nothing. That is how technology moves all the time: it starts very expensively and then it gets cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. We are not talking about switching off now; we are switching off, hopefully, in four or five years time. By then, presumably, the cost of these boxes must have plummeted down to what is something which would be very reasonable.
  (Mr Prebble) We must hope so. Sets or boxes are not any cheaper today, two and a half years after we launched, than they were when we launched. There is probably something like $25 or $30 of intellectual property in every box before you start actually building the thing. When this idea began to be floated—perhaps it is nine months or so since it reached us—we did a lot of work because, frankly, if it is possible to produce a box that provides a lot of these basic services much less expensively than we currently pay for it, then that is something that we would be very keen to do. I think it is perfectly possible that in four or five years you will see a significant reduction. I do not believe it will be £10. I guess all I can say is that our research suggests to us that we should not be as optimistic as I think you are about where this will go to.

  228. If it does not happen, is it not the likelihood that other technologies, which are essentially broadband Internet—providing rather than digital television in the strict sense, will become your major competitors and in fact drive you out of the market. ADSL, cable connections, increasing wireless applications, which will make all sorts of television on demand, Internet on demand, when you want it, how you want it, where you want it, will these not become the way in which people will get their television and radio services rather than through something like your own company?
  (Mr Prebble) Some will. Today, the cost of installing any of those technologies is still very significantly higher than ours. The other thing that will happen—and I hope happens very quickly in the DTT business—is that, because of the natural replacement cycle of televisions, when people understand—as we should make them understand as fast as possible—that the next time they buy a television they should buy a digital set—which is something which collectively we have done far less work on than we ought to have done—then at that point the cost of acquisition of a customer for us will be a tiny fraction of what it is today or what those other technologies will require. But the fact that it is now 16/17 months since Chris Smith announced an intention to move towards analogue switch-off, in that time something like four or five million television sets have been sold and maybe only 100,000 of them are digital—even though lots of people have gone into shops, parted with £1,000 or £1,500 and gone out thinking that they have bought the latest technology, only to find out, when they get it home, that it cannot even receive the BBC free-to-air channels—means that there is a major consumer issue out there that collectively we ought to be addressing.

  229. Yes, I take your point. Could I, however, ask you on that. Yes, five million have been bought, but it does not mean to say that five million have gone out of service, if you like, in replacement. The old television moves up into the children's bedroom or somewhere else in the house. How does your technology work with that? I mean, if someone buys into your technology, can they use it on more than one television, or do they have to buy you twice in order to use it on two televisions?
  (Mr Prebble) You can move it around. You can move the set or box around.

  230. That is not the question.
  (Mr Prebble) No, I know it is not, but I thought I would give you that. To go to your first point, the point about these five million televisions is not absolutely that they do not work, but, if you are going to part with £1,000 for a television, you probably want to think it is going to last quite a long time, without having to buy this additional device or subscribe to pay television for it to work after analogue switch-off. People are not aware at this moment. They go into a shop, buy a very impressive looking new television, they are entitled to assume that it is going to last them many, many years without having to do something else. In this past 16 months, we have made the mountain we have got to climb four million sets higher than we need have done if at the time we had said to people, "Just be aware that sometime around 2006 we are going to be switching off analogue, so when you are buying a television buy a digital one."

  231. I have got cable. As far as I understand it, I can get digital cable, but I have not, it so happens, for some of the reasons implied in my last question, and yet I have never been told by the digital company that I have to change my television.
  (Mr Prebble) If you have got cable, you are already a pay TV subscriber. We are talking about people who go in and buy with no intention of today buying a pay television service, just go in and buy a new television. They are buying an analogue set, which, come analogue switch-off, either will not work or they will need this additional device. If when they went in it was clear and they understood, what they should be saying, if they want the set to last more than four or five years without buying an additional device, is, "Actually I'd like to buy a digital television." Then this mountain would be getting smaller, just because of the natural replacement cycle. It is rather like the Government introducing catalytic converters and just saying, "OK, from this point you will not be able to sell a car without a catalytic converter." What happens is that over a cycle the market changes and everybody has a catalytic converter. We have not started that process yet.

  232. Of the channels which you provide, have you done any research into which channels are watched most?
  (Mr Prebble) Yes.

  233. What is the result?
  (Mr Prebble) The most watched channel is ITV.

  234. And then?
  (Mr Prebble) BBC1.

  235. So, when our Chairman says people would not buy your services to get terrestrial channels, he is correct. But if in fact you were not offering those channels at all and people who bought your ONdigital could not get BBC1, ITV, BBC2 and Channel 4 and Channel 5, would they buy it?
  (Mr Prebble) If, as a result of buying us, they could not get the free-to-air channels?

  236. Yes.
  (Mr Prebble) I am sure they would not, but I can see no circumstances in which that could happen.

  237. No. I am just making the point, however. So the most watched channels are the terrestrial channels, even now.
  (Mr Prebble) Absolutely.

  Mr Maxton: And that is true on Sky as well, on cable—

  Chairman: You cannot get ITV on Sky.

  Mr Maxton: No, you cannot get ITV. You can on Sky digital.


  238. No, you cannot. I am on Sky digital and I cannot watch ITV. I am relieved of watching it!
  (Mr Prebble) That is right. I mean, obviously that is partly the function of the fact that two-thirds of the country do not have pay television at all.

Mr Maxton

  239. May I follow on from that. If someone does get your service, can they still get analogue television?
  (Mr Prebble) Yes.

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