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BBC loses thousands of viewers as satellite switch ends in farce

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The BBC’s digital channels have lost thousands of potential viewers after its move to a new satellite went badly wrong.

The shifting of the BBC’s channels to the Astra 2D satellite has left many viewers without BBC1 to BBC4, News 24 or its two children’s channels.

The transmission problems have arisen following the BBC’s confrontation with Sky earlier this year over the cost of the satellite broadcaster’s encryption technology. In March, the BBC announced it was moving to the Astra 2D satellite and terminating its £85m encrypted carriage deal with Sky.

The move led to threats from Sky over the BBC’s position within the electronic programme guide and the matter has now been referred to the Independent Television Commission, which is expected to make a decision on the matter within the next month.

Last Wednesday, the BBC moved from the Astra 2A satellite to Astra 2D, although the end of the encryption agreement between the broadcasters has been rolled over until he end of June pending an ITC decision on the EPG matter.

The 2D satellite has a tighter broadcast footprint, which in theory allows the BBC to broadcast unencrypted without having to worry about being picked up on mainland Europe.

Issues over programme rights, including movies and live sports events, mean the BBC would be unable to broadcast in the clear if its programmes are possible to receive outside the UK.

However, when the switchover took place, many digital satellite viewers discovered that the signals were not strong enough to be picked up and for them the BBC channels effectively disappeared.

Although it should be possible to realign satellite dishes, Sky has been telling customers that it will cost them £65 to do so.

A BBC spokesman said the transmission difficulties were a result of the way in which satellite dishes were installed in viewers’ houses in the first place.

“We have consulted Sky about this situation and it would appear that those viewers affected may have unsuitable satellite dish installations.

“We have been informed by Sky that it will be necessary for customers to arrange for qualified satellite installers to visit affected installations to correct the installation problems.”

However, a Sky spokesman claimed that the number of viewers affected was a “tiny proportion” of Sky’s existing 6.7 million subscribers, adding that the majority of reported problems were resolved quickly with only a minority of problems resulting in service calls.

The BBC faces the prospect that many satellite subscribers, who have an otherwise complete line-up of channels, will not be sufficiently worried about losing BBC3 and BBC4 and, therefore, not bother to get the channels put back on.

A staff member on the BBC’s telephone information line told one caller: “If you get the rest of the BBC channels on analogue and you are not worried about 3 or 4, you could leave it.”

Meanwhile, a member of Sky’s helpline staff said: “We’ve had loads of calls. It’s not us, it’s the BBC who have changed frequencies. Newer dishes are coping, but older ones are not. It’s a big problem.”