From July 10, BBC will make its eight digital TV channels available free to households with satellite dishes in Britain and Ireland. The move also provides free access to around 90 commercial channels such as CNN, QVC, Fashion TV and other lifestyle and specialist broadcasters for which viewers currently pay a subscription.
Included in BBC’s line-up will be BBC1 and BBC2, already familiar to Irish viewers, as well as CBeebies, a daytime service for under fives;
CBBC, geared towards the 6-13 age group; BBC3, which has evening viewing for teens and other young people; BBC4, which concentrates on cinema, drama and documentaries, and the acclaimed BBC News 24.
One attraction of the BBC package which is expected to find favour particularly with parents of young children, is its policy of advertising-free programming on all channels.
The other main feature of the deal is it can be accessed using home satellite equipment already in place in around 260,000 Irish households which have subscriptions to Sky television.
Sky customers will have the option of letting their subscriptions run out and using the equipment to access the BBC package free of charge while TV viewers connected to a cable company can opt for a one-off purchase of satellite equipment instead of paying monthly subscription fees for life.
One provider of satellite TV equipment, Electroplus in Dublin, yesterday quoted an all-in price of 400 for the purchase and installation of a standard household satellite package.
This would include satellite dish, receiver box and connecting cable,
although more sophisticated versions, capable of receiving foreign language and pay-per-view channels from around the world, would cost more.
Consumers who weigh up the once-off cost against ongoing monthly subscription fees could find the satellite purchase option paying for itself in less than two years as a subscription to Chorus cable company for a basic digital package costs 25.99 monthly. Charges for the other main cable provider, NTL, start at 19 monthly. Sky offers packages starting at 27 per month.
All three companies are expected to react to try to dissuade customers from switching loyalties. NTL has recently introduced a half-price special offer on its first-time connection fee.
The fears of RTÉ, TV3 and TG4, however, centre on long-term viewing trends. The channels are currently available digitally through Sky and the cable companies, or terrestrially by traditional aerial.
While the latter option will still be available if households drop their subscription services, there are concerns viewers will not want the bother of manually switching from digital to aerial every time they want to watch a home-grown channel and viewing figures will plummet in the long run.
Next week’s meeting with the minister will focus on the limited options for protecting the domestic broadcasters. Under the EU's TV Without Frontiers directive, no operator may block the signal of another broadcaster. The directive is under review.
It is also possible the channels could seek to extricate themselves from their contracts with Sky and seek a deal with the BBC to be included in its package instead.