“A revolution in broadcasting,” read Martyn Lewis on a BBC 9 O’Clock News broadcast way back in November 1988.
“Dozens of TV channels, hundreds of radio stations are on the way.”
The government’s white paper on broadcasting, which detailed proposals on the future of television and radio services, advocated more choice, and the introduction of a fifth channel. It more or less paved the way for the 1990 Broadcasting Act.
20 years ago this week, Sky launched Britain’s first digital TV service. As anticipated, there was a wider selection of programming for viewers right from the start. Sky’s early competition came in the form of OnDigital, backed by the ITV companies.
In many ways there is a lot to be thankful for the move to digital. Analogue reception was never reliable (think of all the times you had to nudge the antenna), nor was it accessibility friendly. Television has become more interactive, and we can listen to the radio at the touch of a button. Yes, the quality of programming has suffered, but at least there is clarity on what each channel’s strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to being a “jack-of-all-trade” broadcaster.
Sport has greatly benefited from the digital revolution. You can watch live Champions League football in the evenings, EFL Championship highlights at the weekends and the best of the European football on demand, when and wherever you prefer. It has though come at a price, a large one at that. When Sky launched its sports and entertainment package in 1998, it set you back less than £30. Today the sports bundle costs three times at much, excluding HD charges, and various additional costs.
For Sky in recent years, holding on to sport rights has been as much of a battle as keeping customers happy. It has lost the Champions League and FA Cup to BT, La Liga to Eleven Sports, and US Open tennis to Amazon. The Premier League remains, its crown jewel, but is that enough?
The dispersal of sports coverage has been a gradual one, at the expense of the traditional channels. If the government are serious about increasing sport participation, there would be safeguards in place to prevent organisations from chasing the money, and a commitment to free-to-air television.