Tyro digital webs slay rival terrestrial giants

Win marks move away from traditional b'casters

HOLLYWOOD — Blighty’s once-mighty terrestrial channels BBC1 and ITV1 have been humbled in the ratings by satellite and cable channels for the first time.

Multichannel TV snatched 26.1% of viewers in the week ending April 20 compared to a 23.9% share for BBC1 and 23.8% for ITV, according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB). Smaller terrestrial webs BBC2, Channel 4 and tyro web Five shared the rest of the aud.

Digital channels narrowly outstripped the pubcaster’s flagship channel BBC1 and commercial giant ITV1 last year — but only in multichannel homes.

It’s a major coup as the channels are available in fewer than half of all households through cable, satellite or the terrestrial digital satellite platform Freeview. And it marks the move away from traditional broadcasters in a country where special interest and niche channels only bowed in the 1980s.

Digital services still rely heavily on sport, movies and U.S. imports to woo viewers.

Among the highest rating shows were “Friends” and “ER” on E4 and “Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on Sky One. Just one homegrown drama, Sky’s “Dream Team,” made it on to the list of top 10 programs.

Arsenal’s soccer showdown with Manchester United on Sky Sports was the most watched program with 3.4 million viewers, while the 300th episode of “The Simpsons” attracted record ratings of nearly 1.5 million.

The news is a boost to U.K. government plans to switch off its analogue service by 2010, when it hopes all viewers will have bought digital televisions.

The shift towards multichannel viewing has serious implications for cash-strapped ITV, which may lose more advertisers, and the wrangle about public service broadcasting in a digital age.

It also puts a question mark over BBC director general Greg Dyke’s strategy of launching digital channels funded by the license fee, as not one show on its channels did well in the ratings.

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