Multichannel TV overtakes terrestrial

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BBC1 and ITV have been pushed into second place in the ratings by satellite and cable channels for the first time in TV history.
Digital TV channels including Sky One, MTV and Sky Sports last week hit record levels in the run-up to Easter, undermining the BBC's case for the licence fee and ITV's claim on the largest chunk of advertising revenues.

Today's figures are a major milestone as they take into account figures for the 50% of homes that have only five channels - digital channels narrowly outstripped BBC1 and ITV last year but only in multichannel homes.

Arsenal's recent football showdown with Manchester United on Sky Sports, the much publicised 300th episode of The Simpsons on Sky One and the new series of Friends all helped multichannel TV to its best ever week.

According to figures from Barb, multichannel TV accounted for 26.1% of all viewing in the week ending Sunday April 20 compared with a 23.9% share for BBC1 and 23.8% for ITV.

They overtook the main terrestrial channels even though fewer than half of all households have access to digital channels through cable, satellite or Freeview.

The list of the top 10 shows on multichannel TV during Easter week also showed digital services still relied heavily on sport, movies and American imports to draw viewers.

Among the highest rating shows were Friends and ER on E4 and Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Sky One. Just one home-grown drama, Sky's Dream Team, made it on to the list of top 10 programmes.

The Arsenal v Manchester United game was the most watched programme with 3.4 million viewers, while The Simpsons attracted record ratings of nearly 1.5 million for its 300th episode, screened on Sunday and trailed in most of the Sunday papers.

The shift is psychologically significant because it further underlines the migration of viewers away from traditional terrestrial channels towards special interest and niche channels.

By 2010 the government hopes to have converted the entire UK population to digital sets, meaning the five terrestrial channels will lose their traditional ratings advantage.

The shift towards multichannel viewing also has serious implications for advertisers, the ongoing argument surrounding public service broadcasting in a digital age and the BBC's bid to retain the licence fee.

The figures also highlight the challenge facing the BBC director general, Greg Dyke.

While the results help justify his strategy of launching a string of digital channels funded by the licence fee, it is telling that not one show on the corporation's channels appeared on the list of the 10 most watched programmes.
 
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