BBC backs down from pay-TV fight



Top-Up TV: channes such as E4 will be available to subscribers

The BBC has backed down in its row with a new pay-TV service that will allow viewers access to a further 10 channels on Freeview.
The corporation has dropped its objections to the new service, and an investigation by Ofcom following a complaint from the rival, Top-Up TV, is expected to be abandoned.

The BBC was concerned that the growth of the service, which has been heavily promoted as free to view, will be stemmed by the addition of pay services that it said would "confuse" the consumer message.

It is also concerned that one of the pay channels will be a mature content service - Television X, owned by Richard Desmond - and fears it could queer the pitch to middle-class "digital refusniks" who, until now, have been turned off by pay-TV.

At a meeting this week of The Digital Network, a consortium of the BBC, transmission business Crown Castle, ITV, Channel 4 and SDN, the corporation reiterated its arguments.

But the other members of the group said that both satellite and cable TV merge free-to-air and paid-for channels in their electronic programme listings, grouping all entertainment channels together, all sports channels together and so on.

Top-Up TV will offer viewers with an old ITV Digital box 10 free-to-air channels for £7.99 a month plus a £20 installation charge, undercutting the cheapest packages offered by Sky and its cable rivals, NTL and Telewest.

The company, which launches next month, will allow Freeview customers to access a further 10 channels including UK Gold, E4 and Turner Classic Movies for a monthly payment of £7.99.

Former BSkyB executives David Chance and Ian West, who are spearheading Top-Up TV, immediately fired off a complaint to Ofcom after the BBC said it would obstruct any integration of the two services.

Their victory means that Top-Up TV will be able to promote the new channels to Freeview's 3 million customers as they cycle through the EPG.

Although initially only viewers with an ITV Digital box will be able to receive the service, the company plans to issue upgraded set-top boxes or add-on devices that would enable anyone with Freeview to pick up the channels.

It is the second time in a year that the BBC has been involved in a dispute over the electronic programming guide, the on-screen channel menu that allows viewers to navigate their way through the multichannel world.

Last year the BBC quit the transmission system run by BSkyB and became embroiled in a dispute with the pay-TV group over the positioning of its channels on the guide. The row was settled after the corporation signed a new deal ensuring prominence on the channel guide.

Top-Up TV's complaint to media regulator Ofcom over the issue is now expected to be withdrawn