BBC should NOT necessarily occupy top EPG spot

New, much smarter UK set-top boxes from Sky (SkyQ) and TiVo increasingly tend to use the first EPG ‘landing page’ for promotions of programmes, sports events and movies. Older boxes (Sky+, cable STBs) were obliged to give “due prominence” to the UK’s 5 national networks (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 and Channel 5).

In a major opinion piece by James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Radio & Education (and a former Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport) he argued that the “BBC television’s [output] is being hidden by digital giants” while “Netflix, Amazon and Sky are making home-grown programmes hard to find on their set-top boxes”.

Even the widely available Sky+ ‘digibox’ now tends to squeeze its EPG into a top-left position on the TV screen while giving extra prominence to promoted programming (although rarely from a public broadcaster).

David Elstein (Chairman of openDemocracy’s Board, and also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group), writing on openDemocracy’s website, says Purnell is wrong. First, he reminds Mr Purnell that 3 out of the ten programmes cited by Purnell as part of today’s “[UK] golden age of television” are in fact made with US cash (‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Stranger Things’) and ‘The Night Manager’ was a co-production with US cable broadcaster AMC.

Elstein says: “What annoys Purnell is that modern EPGs offer a home screen that provides such a wide range of viewing options – live, catch-up, on-demand, top picks – that the benefits of “due prominence” in the channel listings is diluted. He complains specifically about the new “Sky Q” box, where “there is not one button on the remote control that takes you to live TV”. Oh dear. Worse still, the “Top Picks” tend to be Sky’s own programmes (including ones that require additional pay-per-view costs, over and above a monthly fee – shocking, really.)”

Elstein, who was a Programming head at Sky and the launch CEO of Channel 5, says Purnell is also wrong to demand that the BBC’s children’s channels (CBeebies and CBBC) be given prominence on the ‘kids’ EPG, and remind Purnell that the 12 channels listed above the BBC’s pair come from Viacom, Disney or Time Warner, and had been part of the Sky platform for almost 20 years before the BBC launched their two channels.

“Indeed, it was not until the BBC itself evicted children’s programmes from its EPG-protected channels, BBC1 and BBC2, that BBC provision for children was fully relegated to the ‘kids’ ghetto. If there is any anxiety that viewing of “safe, trusted, educational, British programmes without adverts” by our children is undermined by the Sky EPG, why not just restore the programmes to their previous home, on the protected services, BBC1 and BBC2, which between them dominate all UK viewing,” asks Elstein.

Elstein says Purnell’s answer is to ask the UK parliament to force on-demand services to provide “due prominence” for public service catch-up offerings “like iPlayer”. “This “like” is another weaselly formulation, as the only catch-up service from the designated public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five) that provides exclusively public service content is – the iPlayer. The equivalent services from ITV, Channel 4 and Five all include an array of programmes that never appeared on their public service channels: content from ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, E4, More4, 5USA and so on that are nothing to do with public service television, including all the programmes acquired from abroad that are not even British (which is true of the iPlayer, too). Why should any platform be forced to give these services ‘due prominence’” asks Elstein.

Elstein concludes by saying it is highly unlikely that today’s Culture, Media & Sport ministry will demand changes to the current status quo. “The Digital Economy Bill is likely to pass with no such encumbrances. But that has never stopped the BBC asking,” states Elstein.

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