Socialist Worker

Boxing off the proles

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1791

BBC4, the new digital channel, sells itself with the slogan 'Everybody needs a place to think.' But most of us will have to make do with the bathroom as our thinking place, because we certainly aren't going to see BBC4.

Barely noticed, and with no public discussion, the BBC has lopped off key parts of its coverage and ghettoised them in a channel that only a minority can receive. You might have liked to have seen programmes like Tariq Ali on Bin Laden or The Trial of Henry Kissinger. You would certainly have enjoyed films like the brilliant Together or A One and a Two.

But you did not have the chance to see any of these unless you are one of the minority linked up to digital. And so it goes on with music, plays, films and documentaries. Most of the best coverage has been wrenched out of mainstream (and free) television and delivered to a tiny group.

Roly Keating, controller of BBC4, was delighted by ratings figures for the channel's first week. 'It's doing comfortably better than BBC Knowledge,' he said. 'Tuesday showed a healthy peak of 60,000 viewers for the news which is really encouraging. 'Launch night was actually a 20,000 average.'

The remarkable conclusion is that more people are 'tuning in' to Socialist Worker than they are the to vast bulk of the BBC flagship arts and culture channel. And we don't have an annual budget of £35 million. Meanwhile the backward proles who have been slow to grasp the bright new world of digital will be left with BBC1 and BBC2.

These will be pitched into a scrap with ITV to produce the blandest, least challenging output. When satellite arrived the great myth was that competition would lead to a widening of choice and a flowering of variety. The truth is there are acres of trash and a price on everything you might actually want to watch.

From next month you can buy a special box for £100 which will enable you to get all the BBC digital services but none of the rest of the digital coverage. So to watch the sort of programmes viewers used to get for nothing on BBC1 and BBC2 people are now expected to fork out a ton. On top of this scandal, we will all be forced to switch to digital soon at our own cost.

The government has laid down 2010 as the absolute limit for analogue television (the present sort) to survive. After that your TV will simply cease to work. The analogue frequencies will be sold off to mobile phone companies to provide lots of money for somebody. We will be forced to have some box, cable or aerial installed by a Murdochian multinational.

The government has appointed a team of 'independent experts' to oversee this process. The digital tsar is Barry Cox. He is an ex- executive at London Weekend Television, and the deputy tsar is Sheila Cassells. She is the head of economic policy at BSkyB. That's balance, you see-decisions made by one representative of the terrestrial broadcasters and one from satellite firms.

The one bright spot in all this is that our slow uptake in switching to digital has already stuffed a number of firms. ITV Digital looks as if it will be run out of business at any moment. Along with many others I will hang out to the end-unless Teletubbies goes over to digital in which case they can have my £100 tomorrow.


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Sat 16 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1791
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