Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 780)


Mr Allan Bremner, Ms Patricia Galvin and Mr Pa«dhraic O« Ciardha

  Q760  Lord Maxton: Eircom is your telephone company?

  Ms Galvin: BT equivalent. I suppose they are in the position where, short of any obligatory obligation—they have a very healthy ISDN business, that is doing quite nicely. Pushing the higher end, DSL is still a bit of a struggle, and I think they are talking about it and they have plans, within three to five years, to reach over half of the homes with the equivalent of one megabyte. That is quite good. But, that said, if there were further investment it could go a lot faster. We are still not absolutely clear—the government has announced its intention to launch a pilot for DTT early next year. All going well that should run for one or two years; all going well they would hope to launch a DTT platform. Who knows what will happen in the broadband market? As I say, if there are investors it may well be that we could have IPTV sooner than digital terrestrial. As a public service broadcaster our belief is that we want to produce public service content that is accessible and available on all major platforms. So we broadcast to mobile, IPTV, DTT and of course availability on digital, cable and satellite. We are watching and monitoring for availability and excellence to all of those platforms. Which comes first, there is still a little to play for there.

  Mr O« Ciardha: The person that designed Ireland gave us many mountains and valleys and not all of them are commercially viable propositions for television delivery, and I think that is very important to state here, that whatever platform or combination of platforms is arrived at universal service is wonderful if you live in the Midlands where one transmitter reaches 45 per cent of the population, but some of us come from parts where it takes two transmitters to get it into the valley. Secondly, I just want to echo the fact that the Ofcom Review—I do not know if it is permissible to mention the Ofcom Review in this context—specifically said that consideration should be given in the UK switchover in this part of the world to extending our service of our own channel. It is a specific proposal by Ofcom.

  Q761  Lord Maxton: You say that but of course even in remote areas people tend to have telephones, presumably.

  Mr O« Ciardha: They certainly do.

  Q762  Lord Maxton: And certainly the higher bands of ADSL provide broadband down that telephone line. Going back a little bit, can I ask about the switchover to using terrestrial digital, which means there is going to be an increased signal from different parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland and from Wales, and is that going to mean that people in the south will be able to get BBC and other channels much more easily than they can at the present time, and will that affect you?

  Ms Galvin: Certainly the switchover in the north and also in parts of England and Wales a little bit earlier, in 2009, will have a significant impact on the availability of particularly the BBC's signals through analogue spill-over, which they have traditionally received. I think it is about 16 per cent of the television viewing population enjoy Irish terrestrial services and the multi-terrestrial, as we call it, the spill-over channels. So there will be significant impact there. If there is not a free to air digital platform for Northern Ireland to go to then they will have no other choice but to go to Pay TV, cable or satellite in order to continue to receive the UK channels that they have been accustomed to. The other more important issue, I suppose, is that with switchover, particularly in the north, there are going to be issues about interference, about degradation of the signal, about spill-over of the signal either way, but as part of the World Radio Conference, RRC06, next year, there have been very active bilaterals between the UK and Ireland for a number of years now on teasing out and agreeing basically the frequency plan and power level of either side of the border, to make sure that any interference is minimised. So that is ongoing. I think also through the Broadcasters' Group there is quite a bit of discussion about what can be done to alleviate any unnecessary interruption, but also how could we perhaps capitalise on this and make sure that, for example, capacities can be found on platforms in both communities to make sure that the choice of channels is extended rather than lessened.

  Q763  Lord Maxton: Have you had discussions with Freeview actually to get on to their platform?

  Ms Galvin: The issue to date is, yes, we very much like the idea of being available on it. The difficulty is also the signal being available in the UK and the cost of clearing the rights for a territory the size of the UK for a broadcaster from Ireland. If greater capacity is released after the RR06 negotiations, under the care of Ofcom some of that spectrum may well be re-released for broadcast purposes. There may well be opportunities for both digital radio and digital terrestrial television. Our broadcasting legislation to date, albeit the DTT platform did not take off at the time, but there are provisions in the legislation also to allocate some capacity for UK services to be available on a digital platform in the north. So we hope that there might be opportunities for a similar reciprocal arrangement, all being well.

  Mr O« Ciardha: It should be emphasised, the Republic has 1.4 million TV homes. We do not have, as yet, an indigenous digital platform of any kind. The second figure is that over half of the 1.4 million homes have already signed up to a non-national delivery means, whether it is subscription satellite or digital cable. So the clock is ticking for the Republic and we as a nation need to make some very quick decisions, and hopefully they will be decisions that would be compatible with the shared television experience we have had for the last 40 years.

  Q764  Lord Maxton: Can I come to you on that, Mr Bremner, the same issue? Because it seems to me in the multi-channel and then into what I term now the multi-choice world of television, your advertising revenue is likely to be hit, is it not?

  Mr Bremner: Yes, and I think that is one of the reasons that encouraged us to diversify in the way that we did. In terms of broadband provision Northern Ireland is about 98 per cent provided for, and we have to look very carefully at a new generation as very technologically literate, not watching television as it were, communally on a settee, but as a single viewer looking at his or her television with a handheld device, being able to bring a whole lot of different media across to that device. That is one of the reasons, as I was saying, that we diversified. On the subject of digital switchover, we argued—and I think Ofcom accepted that—that it would be particularly injurious if the analogue service was switched off in Northern Ireland when the analogue service in the south was still going strong, because we were worried that with the switchover to digital—and there are still nearly 45 per cent of people who do not have digital—we were concerned that some of our analogue viewers might then look to the channels that were coming from the south.

  Q765  Chairman: The last questions, on religious programmes. I think the ITV evidence said that the BBC should basically be the leading broadcaster of religious and faith programmes. Would that be your view, Mr Bremner? Are we simply stating that this is inevitable, that because of the very nature of a company like Ulster TV you are not going to get very much advertising—or possibly not very much advertising, and where do you put it in any event?—to support religious broadcasting?

  Mr Bremner: Our position is not that of ITV's, Chairman, at all. We would see our schedule as deficient if it did not have some religious programmes in it. But I do have to say that over the last five or six years we have set aside the morning worships that we used to do; we used to do six of those a year. Interestingly enough, if they were strong enough services or they were dealing with something that people were very, very interested in we would move it to two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. We set that aside because we think that that is adequately provided by other channels and what we now do is we make religious factual programmes, and we expect them to punch their weight. We show them at half past seven on a Tuesday, and they do punch their weight and that is why they will stay and one of the reasons why we would want to keep them in the schedule. Interestingly enough, in a series called Journeys—and we have just shown our second series—I counted the number of faiths that were represented in that series, which exceeded just under a dozen. So it is a popular programme, it is in peak, it does show that there are diverse faiths in our community, and I think it would be negligent if we did not have it in our schedule.

  Q766  Chairman: That is very interesting. What kind of programme is it?

  Mr Bremner: We do themes. For example, in the first series the first programme was about birth, so there were three human interest stories on a theme in each programme. The first one was about a man, his joy at having his first child. The second one was a young woman, a devoted Christian, but had had three children, two of which had significant disabilities. And the third one was a woman who had been unable to conceive and when she conceived her child had died. Then we asked religious commentators to say what perspective could these bring in the very testing experiences in two of the subjects there. People watched it and they watched it when we repeated it. So we feel strongly that any subject can be done on commercial television if you have it produced interestingly. If we are doing a programme, as we are, about a charitable project in South Africa—we will be showing that at Christmas—it has to get people to watch it and, like any teacher, any lecturer, you should be able to interest your audience.

  Q767  Chairman: And you do it on issues which might be controversial.

  Mr Bremner: Yes.

  Q768  Chairman: Birth control, for example.

  Mr Bremner: Yes.

  Q769  Chairman: What do you feel about this, Mr O« Ciardha?

  Mr O« Ciardha: Our own channel does not do what, not in any disparaging sense I call event coverage; we do not do religious services. But we do carry in our documentary, particularly in our documentary strands both newly made content about matters religious and spiritual, and interestingly enough one of the disciplines of having no money and in trying to not use just the American and English-made documentaries we have a significant stream of documentaries which are re-voiced from other languages. One consistent theme running through those is a French-made programme on world religions, which unfailingly gets us very good ratings and particularly active feedback from the audiences. As Allan says in another context, it is not just about the figures. But religion is a very important theme in our programming, but because RTÉ, as Patricia will confirm, does religious services very consistently on both radio and television we do not feel that we would be adding any value or extending the choice. But it is important.

  Q770  Chairman: RTÉ do just what has been described?

  Ms Galvin: Indeed, and I suppose the only issue there is that RTÉ has to constantly assess and to check in to make sure that it is still reflecting the society in which it is broadcasting, and it is becoming an increasingly fast changing, growing and much more multi-cultural and secular society, and to make sure that we are getting that balance right.

  Q771  Lord Maxton: Do you represent the secular aspect?

  Ms Galvin: I think increasingly so, yes, over the last couple of years a lot more programming has been introduced to address that. I think we are still trying to find that right balance as Ireland is changing faster than we can keep up.

  Q772  Chairman: But you would actually show the different faiths?

  Ms Galvin: Yes.

  Q773  Lord Maxton: Is there a religious question in your census?

  Ms Galvin: Yes.

  Q774  Lord Maxton: What does it show?

  Mr Bremner: An almost vertical drop certainly in the Christian faiths.

  Q775  Lord Maxton: But non-believer.

  Mr Bremner: Non-believer would probably be at 30 per cent now and non-practising would certainly be much higher, I suppose. It used to be that non-believer and non-practising were less than 10 per cent, but I think we are probably moving towards at half and half.

  Chairman: It is interesting, is it not, that you have figures like that and yet Mr Bremner is saying that you can put on interesting—which I suspect is the point—programmes on religion at 7.30 on an evening, which is peak viewing time, and get good audiences for it.

  Q776  Lord Maxton: I do not see the argument for that because I might watch a programme if I thought it was interesting even though I have no religious point of view.

  Mr O« Ciardha: That would be our experience as well. The fact that people do not attend a religious meeting once a week, certainly in the Republic of Ireland, in our audience, does not translate into a lack of interest in matters spiritual, or in formal examining of other religious faiths about their benefits and their downsides.

  Q777  Chairman: Mr Bremner, you intend to continue with these programmes?

  Mr Bremner: Yes, Chairman.

  Q778  Chairman: We have to remind ourselves that we are looking at the BBC, however fascinating everybody is, but how do you rate the BBC's coverage of these things? I know none of you want to comment on the BBC, et cetera, but do you think that they cover religion well?

  Q779  Mr Bremner: I cannot answer that question, simply because I am not familiar with the output. When I look at network television and I look at local television it seems that in terms of its frequency it is reducing, but no, I simply do not know the content.

  Q780  Chairman: Then we will call that a day. Are there any other points that my colleagues want to ask and make? Any additional points we have not covered?

  Mr O« Ciardha: Thank you for having us.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming. What you have said is very interesting and perhaps if there are any other factual points we could write to you? Thank you so much for coming.

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