Digital TV 'tax' slammed by media alliance

The government will be guilty of "inconsistency and favouritism towards the BBC" if it approves an increase in the TV license fee for viewers of digital TV according to an alliance of broadcasters.

The alliance, unprecedented in modern media, is made of commercial broadcasters including ITV (including its contributing channels), Channel Four, Sky and ON digital who have united in their condemnation of a government report on the future of the BBC license.

The report, due Thursday, is widely reported to support an increase of £20 on the current £101 charge. While the BBC claims the increase is necessary to pay for digital content, critics argue the BBC is not a vital part of the digital revolution and should not be supported at the expense of commercial channels.

With the analogue switch-off happening around 2006, critics claim the move is designed to increase everyone's license fee through the back door.

Granada spokesman Chris Hopson believes the government will have to think closely before passing a change that he believes will alienate commercial TV stations and consumer groups and slow down the take-up and export of the UK digital TV technology. "If the government supports the recommendations it will be guilty of favouring the BBC at the expense of all the other commercial broadcasters and inconsistency on its own promotion of the transfer to digital technology," he said.

TV watchdog, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) is also strongly opposed to the introduction of a higher fee for digital viewers. In its submission to the committee responsible for the report, it states: "It would be perverse for government to introduce a new and additional financial barrier to viewers contemplating the move to digital television."

While the BBC remains tight-lipped about the debacle, commercial broadcasters were vocal in their opposition. "It is iniquitous to tell people to pay more for something they will have to migrate to," said Sky spokesman Andy Sholl.

Scholl believes the "tax" will discourage take-up of digital TV. He disputes claims that it is BBC content which is persuading up to 5,000 people a day to migrate to digital. "The BBC claims its content is crucial to take-up but that is absolute tosh," he said. "People are switching because they want more choice, not just more BBC."

Unlikely bedfellow ON digital agrees with Sky. "The technology is in its infancy. While this won't kill it, it will reduce the rate of take-up. It is like changing the goal posts half way through the match," an ON digital spokesman said.

In a separate development the ITC hit back Monday at claims its regulation of interactive programming would stifle e-commerce. The organisation is currently researching ways in which regulation could be applied to interactive television but denies this will hold back interactive advertising. "What we are most concerned about is whether consumers know when they are watching a program and an advertisement. Our research is centred around asking consumers what they want," a spokeswoman said.

A source at ON digital, which plans to provide interactive services such as Email via television by the end of the year, remains worried. "Of course we're in favour of making sure consumers are protected, but we don't want a nanny-state either," he said.

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