HC Deb 15 February 1967 vol 741 cc531-8
The Postmaster-General (Mr. Edward Short)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement about the method and timing of changing over the definition standard on which B.B.C.-1 and independent television are broadcast from the present 405-line standard to the 625-line standard on which B.B.C.-2 is at present broadcast. The White Paper published just before Christmas also recalled that it had already been decided that colour television should be provided only on 625-line standard; and that a colour service was to start on B.B.C.-2 towards the end of 1967. The White Paper recalled that it had always been recognised that the decision to provide colour television on 625-line definition standard was clearly related to the intention to change over the two 405-line services to 625-lines. It went on to note that my Television Advisory Committee had been asked to report as soon as possible on the method of changeover to be adopted.

The Committee reported to me on 24th January. In summary, it recommends that an early start should be made on the change of standards, using the duplication method. This involves transmitting B.B.C.-1 and independent television programmes on 625-lines on ultra high frequencies as well as maintaining, for a number of years, the present transmissions of these programmes on 405-lines and on V.H.F. The Committee also recommends that colour should be introduced into the 625-line transmissions of B.B.C.-1 and independent television.

The advantages in adopting the Committee's proposals are these. First, it would enable the viewing public to receive all three services on the better standard, and in colour. Secondly, it will permit of the manufacture of single-standard, 625-line only sets, which will be cheaper for the viewing public to buy than the dual-standard set. Thirdly, concentration on the 625-line standard would improve export opportunity not only because this standard is in general use throughout Europe and widely elsewhere but because it would widen the domestic basis for the growth of colour television at a time when overseas television services will be turning to colour.

Against the economies to be realised through better and cheaper sets has to be set the cost to the two broadcasting organisations of duplicating the transmission of B.B.C.-1 and independent television. This expenditure will, however, be spread over a period of ten to fifteen years. The statement in the White Paper that no increase in the licence fee will be required before 1968 is unaffected.

The Government have decided to adopt the recommendations of the Television Advisory Committee, and immediately to authorise the B.B.C. and I.T.A. to undertake the duplication on 625-lines and in U.H.F. of their 405-line, V.H.F. services. If all goes well, the duplicate services should start in London, the Midlands and the North simultaneously within the next three years. In this way, the duplicated programmes, including colour, would be available to nearly half the population from the outset. The expectation is that, by the end of 1971, they would have achieved about 75 per cent. coverage.

There are two points which I must emphasise. First, there is no question of viewers' 405-line sets becoming useless overnight. There need be no misgivings on that score. B.B.C.-1 and independent television will continue to go out on 405-lines for as long as is reasonably necessary—and this means a period of years. Secondly, it is of the essense that B.B.C.-1 and duplicate independent television, put out on 625-lines and U.H.F., should be literally duplicates of the 405-line service. They will not be a B.B.C.-3 and an I.T.A.-2. The whole point is to make the change-over from 405-lines to 625-lines; and it is essential to the exercise that new, single-standards sets shall be able to receive all television programmes.

The House will, I believe, recognise that this decision which I am announcing resolves the biggest single technical issue outstanding in the broadcasting field in Britain. It opens the way to the achievement of the objective of transmitting all services on the better line definition standard, and only on that standard. It broadens the basis on which colour television will be provided. It does, in fact, make three-colour television services available. It marks the beginning of the end of the continuing expense and complication of a dual standard. And it will provide a firm base for long-term planning both by the broadcasting authorities and the manufacturing industry.

Mr. Bryan

I do not wish to start on a discordant note, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the courtesies usually extended to the Opposition is that we see a statement half an hour before we hear it? He and, perhaps, the Patronage Secretary ought to be aware that this morning we did not receive this statement until six minutes before it was made. Perhaps he would look into this.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we certainly welcome the statement at first sight, bearing in mind American experience and how long it took colour to get off the ground there? We always considered that the limitation of colour to the minority B.B.C. audience was both unpromising as well as unfair. Could he be a little more specific on timing? His statement spoke about expenditure being spread over 10 to 15 years. At the same time, we hear that 75 per cent. of the population will have colour by 1971. Does that mean that the remain- ing 25 per cent. will not get it for another 10 years, or spread out over 10 years?

What can we expect in the way of hours of colour broadcasts? What proportion of the programme will be colour? This will have a great bearing on whether people will buy sets, first of all with B.B.C.2 and second, in 1971, when B.B.C.1 and I.T.V. come into it. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any guidance on the availability of sets now that manufacturers will have a far clearer idea of what is wanted? Does he expect supply to meet demand as the whole programme develops? May I point out what a big bar to the spread of colour television is the 42 weeks' deposit necessary when hiring a set? That would work out, on a colour set, at about £70 or £80. If a deposit of that sort had to be paid for colour, this would be a real deterrent to the development of programmes.

Mr. Short

First, on the question of the statement, I apologise to the right hon. Member and the House and will look into the matter. I sent the statement to the right hon. Gentleman last night so I do not know why it did not reach him. With regard to the cost of colour sets, I agree that the present estimate is far too high. I have had some discussion with the industry about this, and with a broader base and a larger market I am sure that they will be able to bring down the price.

I cannot answer the question about hours of colour; it is a matter for the broadcasting authorities. With regard to coverage, the 10 to 15 years begins from this moment and the expenditure will begin immediately. The figures which I quoted were for 1971, and I expect that there will be remote areas of the country which will not receive it until the end of the 10 years. This is inevitable in anything like this, because one cannot cover the whole country at once. Considerable expenditure is involved, but from 1969 the whole U.H.F. network will develop together as one. I pay tribute to the high degree of co-operation between the I.T.A. and B.B.C., who will use common facilities and develop the thing together.

Dr. Winstanley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be read with some dismay and misgivings in some quarters? Will he give an unqualified undertaking that 405-line transmissions will not be withdrawn until there is total coverage by 625-line on U.H.F.? Could he give the House an estimate of the total cost of producing complete coverage on 625-line U.H.F. and would he accept the figure which I have given before of £1,000 million over the next 10 years?

Mr. Short

The figure of £1,000 million is, of course, nonsense, with respect to the hon. Gentleman. The cost over the next 10 to 15 years for I.T.A. will be £30 million and for the B.B.C. £17 million. Against this expenditure, of course, is to be set the considerable saving to the public. When there is 625-lines on all three services, they will not need to buy dual standard sets and a set will be £5 to £6 cheaper. It is a matter of simple arithmetic to work out the enormous saving to the public after 1969; it will more than offset the cost to the B.B.C. and I.T.A. There is an actual gain here and a big saving to the public. With regard to the withdrawing of 405, this will, of course, be some years hence and will not be done in such a way that large numbers of sets will become obsolete.

Mr. Dobson

I compliment my right hon. Friend on his statement and the speed with which he decided once the Advisory Committee had reported. May I press him again on the cost of sets? This is a difficult matter for him, but surely, with the potential of 75 per cent. of the country being able to receive it in three years' time, there is a need for detailed discussion with manufacturers to keep the cost down from the outset of the service.

Mr. Short

I agree. As I said, I have had discussions with the manufacturers and I told them in a speech publicly ten days ago that their present prices were far too high. I think that the price I heard quoted was £309. They then came down a bit, but this was obviously on the basis of colour only on the limited B.B.C.2. Colour will now be much more broadly based and there will be an enormous export potential, so I am sure that the manufacturers will get their prices down.

Mr. Mawby

I think that the House will be pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has finally let us know that we are aiming steadily for 625-line standard; this will help everyone concerned. Can he assure us that both the broadcasting authorities will have enough transmitter coverage to ensure that, with U.H.F., which ca not transmit as far as V.H.F., there are not bigger fringe areas than at present? Of course, speed is of the essence, because manufacturers will certainly have to continue producing 425-line sets, particularly in the West Country and those parts of the country which will obviously have to wait for many years before they get a 625-line standard.

Mr. Short

I told the House that, for the first time, the two broadcasting authorities are developing this in co-operation. They will use common facilities, and I am sure that they will do their best to provide 100 per cent. coverage as quickly as possible. We should be clear about this. The whole country cannot be covered at once. Somebody must be first. We are ensuring that the South, the Midlands and the North start off together in 1969; thereafter, the whole system will be developed as one and we will cover the country as quickly as we can.

Mr. Harold Walker

Can my right hon. Friend be a little more specific about the areas which he defines as the South, the Midlands and the North? How far north? Would the area cover Lancashire and Yorkshire?

Mr. Short

I cannot be specific, but if my hon. Friend wants this information, I can get it for him. I am sure that it will cover the areas to which he refers.

Mr. Ridsdale

When can we expect colour television to come to Anglia? Second, what is the price of colour television sets at present in those countries which have adopted 625 for colour?

Mr. Short

I am afraid that I cannot answer either of those questions. I do not know how long it will take to come to Anglia Television, but I discussed this with some of Anglia's directors last week and I do not think that it will be very long. I am afraid that I cannot even hazard a guess at the prices of sets in other countries.

Mr. Randall

Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that this new development of the 625-line system will not in any way impair the improvement of those areas where there is faulty reception at the moment?

Mr. Short

The announcement this morning does not hold up the developments previously announced and which appear in the B.B.C.'s Report this year.

Mr. Kitson

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider giving those areas which still have no television reception, like parts of my constituency, first consideration in these new schemes in the north of England'? Will he make certain that the booster stations scheduled for the North Riding of Yorkshire are not delayed by this decision?

Mr. Short

They will not be delayed. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am very interested in one little valley in the North and he may be assured that I will keep this problem constantly in mind.

Sir M. Galpern

When will Scotland become involved in this?

Mr. Short

I have given some assurances to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about this. My announcement this morning in no way delays the plans already announced for Scotland.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Is the Postmaster-General really saying that he has no idea what colour television sets will cost?

Mr. Short

I did not tell the hon. Gentleman that at all. I told him quite specifically the prices I heard. The first price which I got from the manufacturers—from B.R.E.M.A.—was £309. They later told me that they could produce a set rather cheaper than that. Even so, I think that it is still far too high. I told them so in no uncertain terms. I expect the industry, after this announce- ment, now that it can start its long-term planning, to jolly well get the price down.

Mr. Bryan

Can I underline once again the point about the hiring of sets, because, at the moment about three-quarters of all sets are hired? That proportion is rising the whole time. A very large proportion of the sets hired are second-hand, because no deposit is payable on the hiring of a second-hand set, whereas a deposit of 42-weeks rental is payable on the hiring of a new set. The deposit is the greatest bar now to any new set buying. A 42-week deposit on a set costing £300, or even £200, could still be very high and it could literally hold up the whole thing.

Mr. Short

I realise this. I cannot comment on the question of the deposit: this is a matter for the Treasury Ministers. To return to the question of the cost of a set, I am sure that this announcement will remove the uncertainty. It gives three services in colour. Many more people will be interested in getting the service. A much greater area of the country will be covered. The export market will be opened up a great deal. I am sure that, if the industry cannot get the price down, there is something wrong with the industry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Certainly. This gives three services in colour in the country. There was uncertainty before. There was only a limited amount of colour. The industry has now been given a very wide home base and an enormous export potential. If the industry cannot now get the prices down, there is something wrong with the industry. I look to the industry to get the prices down now.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must proceed.