BBC, ITV and BT to offer new digital service

BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons has angrily dismissed as “pie in the sky” plans to hand over its highly profitable commercial arm BBC Worldwide to struggling rival pubcaster Channel 4.

“Worldwide depends on the BBC brand and BBC intellectual property. Take these away and there is nothing else,” he said on Thursday.

Lyons was speaking at an event to unveil a project that would see the BBC, ITV and telco giant British Telecom develop an on-demand service that would, for the first time in the U.K., offer free-to-air broadband content direct to TVs. The BBC also offered to make the technology behind its successful iPlayer online service available to other broadcasters.

The proposals are part of the pubcaster’s final submission to a review of public service broadcasting being carried out by industry watchdog Ofcom. The BBC hopes it can persuade pols that it should keep control of BBC Worldwide plus the £3.4 billion ($5 billion) it draws in license fees paid by households with TVs.

The BBC Worldwide proposal is being mulled by politicians who claim Worldwide has become too commercial. They suggest its profits could subsidize Channel 4, which claims it will no longer be able to fulfill its duties as a pubcaster unless it receives state aid.

Last year Worldwide, whose assets include a number of overseas channels, including BBC America, made a profit of $168 million.

However, a similar plan was given short shrift earlier this year by Ofcom.

The free service that would offer content from the Internet directly to TVs was described by BBC director-general Mark Thompson “as a significant landmark in the development of U.K. media” that could be available within 18 months.

The three parties have invited other public service broadcasters and Internet service providers to join the project, called Canvas, which could be as revolutionary as the successful digital terrestrial TV platform Freeview.

ITV executive chairman Michael Grade said viewers would be able to watch shows on demand on TVs rather than online on PC screens (a service called “catch-up TV” in Blighty).

“This proposal will bring catch-up to the TV set in your living room, and all for free. This makes convergence a reality,” he added.

The new service would require a set-top box with an Ethernet connection enabling auds to access shows via broadband on their TV sets.

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