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Viscount Astor: Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. I do not disagree with much of what he said. However, I was trying to point out that, if we are to have these new channels, they will not necessarily mirror the channels that we have had before. Therefore, they might not be calculated to appeal to a wide variety of tastes; indeed, they might be very specific and calculated to appeal to a very narrow band of tastes because that might be the market for those channels. I do not disagree with anything that the noble Lord said about quality, I was merely saying that in my view the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, would go too far.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I should tell the noble Viscount immediately that I entirely agree with what he said as regards a multi-channel situation. A channel may be of high quality but deal with a very narrow area of taste. I fully accept that possibility. It is the totality of the matter that is important.
Lord Inglewood: In responding to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, I should point out that Amendment No. 27 is grouped with quite a few other amendments to which I believe the noble Lord was speaking, although he did not, in fact, touch upon them in any detail. Therefore, with the leave of the Committee, I propose to confine my remarks to the generality of what the noble Lord said and thereby keep to a straight and narrow path.
In moving the amendment the noble Lord has shown his concern to ensure that digital terrestrial television provides programmes of high quality appealing to all tastes and interests. He also rightly emphasises the opportunities which digital affords for expanding regional programming and for providing new and original programmes. We share the aspirations of the proposers of the amendments. We share their enthusiasm for the new technology which promises so much. However, I fear we do not share the belief that those concerns can only be met, or even best met, and that opportunities will only be taken, if government decide what is best for the viewer, any more than government can or should with the printed word. Indeed we fear that that would sound the death knell for digital terrestrial television. Of course, if it does not happen, it will not show programmes to anyone.
As the Committee will know, the Bill ensures that these channels with their public service broadcasting characteristics will be safeguarded and translated into the digital age. Each of the existing terrestrial channels, and Channel 5, is being offered a guaranteed place on a digital multiplex. They are being offered those places on condition that their existing services--or, in the case of S4C, Welsh language programmes--are to be simulcast. All of the positive programme requirements placed upon independent broadcasters now will continue to apply in the digital future to these channels. There is absolutely no relaxation of standards or statutory requirements. The remits for Channel 3, Channel 4 and S4C continue. And, of course, the BBC will get a whole multiplex for BBC1 and BBC2.
This is a real and lasting commitment to quality television. It means that the broadcasters who have brought us "Survival", "The Trials of Life", "Equinox", and "Inspector Morse", "The Animated Shakespeare" and "Wallace and Gromitt"--that programme is popular with my children--all have a core place entrenched in broadcasting in the 21st century. Our guarantees to existing broadcasters mean that public service broadcasting is not merely safe but will be enhanced. But extending quality thresholds to the new services possible on digital terrestrial television just indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what is happening. The whole point about digital is that the context for the regulation of terrestrial broadcasting changes with the increased availability of spectrum.
Our existing framework for terrestrial television is a response to extreme scarcity. There are, after all, only four channels. If one went on using analogue transmission, there would only ever be five channels. With digital there is the opportunity to provide three or four services where previously there was only one. This means 18 or more traditional terrestrial television channels. But the flexibility of the technology allows the multiplex provider to ensure that the spectrum is used much more efficiently, hour by hour and even second by second. This might well mean that at times and depending on the nature of the programme content there could be many more than 18 services being broadcast. Over time, as the technology improves, the possibilities will increase.
The effect of all this is that the introduction of digital technology means a new era for terrestrial television. It is not an era of expansive abundance like satellite and cable where perhaps 100, 200 or even more channels might be available. But it is no longer an era of real scarcity. We therefore need to consider most carefully the nature of the regulatory framework appropriate to the new services that digital technology makes possible.
It is for that reason that the regulatory regime for the new services is light touch. I emphasise light touch, not easy touch. Each and every one of the licence conditions to maintain standards of taste, decency and impartiality are there to be enforced by the ITC just as they are for all broadcasters now, terrestrial, cable or satellite. But we do not think it appropriate to go beyond that and introduce positive programme requirements into licences for the new services. Apart from adding costs, that is, making the viewer pay more--if, as I said earlier, it did not have the effect of strangling digital terrestrial television at birth--it would assume that we know what is best and that viewers who will pay cannot make up their minds about what they want to spend their money on. Therefore, even where quality is guaranteed, all new material must also be passed through a rigorous quality-vetting process deemed unnecessary by Parliament for satellite or cable services.
Competition--and I do not use that word in any emotive sense--will be for the new services on digital terrestrial broadcasting. If digital terrestrial broadcasting does not take off, many of those services will be on satellite and cable channels. If such requirements were imposed, digital terrestrial services would be placed at a clear competitive disadvantage where the existing licensing regime has already proved itself successful in encouraging investment and expansion and in providing new programmes that people want to watch. It satisfies the public and has not engendered widespread moral degradation and corruption the length and breadth of the country.
As I said, the amount of digital terrestrial capacity available will not be limitless. To ensure that there is real diversity and choice for the viewer we have made a variety of programming services one of the main criteria for the ITC to apply in awarding multiplex licences. That will ensure that the proposals coming forward truly reflect the wide spread of tastes and interests of television viewers. It means that digital terrestrial television cannot be all of a kind, with head-to-head contests between rival channels offering the same material to the detriment of choice for the viewer. It means that multiplex providers and broadcasters will need to consider the needs and interests of every section of the television audience--news, entertainment, education, sport, community, local interests and so on.
I should like to conclude by referring to the telling point made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. He said that precisely because digital services will not get off the ground without quality, broadly conceived and approved in general terms by the ITC, it must follow that we do not need to regulate for it.
I very much hope that what I have said has been helpful to the Committee and explains why the Government have taken this position on this matter. I very much hope that the Committee will consider that point, and will conclude that it is not appropriate to seek to press the amendment.
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