§ `As regards the programmes (other than advertisements) broadcast on Channel 5 it shall be the duty of the Commission to ensure—
- (a) that for part of the broadcasting time, the service offers regional programmes for such number of
81 regions the ITC may specify and that a substantial number of such programmes are made within the region for which they are provided.
- (b) that for part of its broadcasting time the service offers educational or training programmes
§ and generally that Channel 5 has a distinctive character of its own.'.—[Mr. Corbett.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to consider Government amendment No. 382 and amend-ment No. 487, in clause 26, page 24, line 35, after 'licence', insert 'or licences'.
§ Mr. Corbett
One of the most remarkable features of the Bill is how little it says about Channel 5. It contains just 15 lines on that subject. Never mind that the new channel faces great uncertainty given the present state of advertising and that forecast immediately ahead. Never mind that the Government have refused to give the IBA authority to begin making transmission arrangements for the new channel.
With one breath the Government say that they want Channel 5, but beyond that there is silence—save their acknowledgment that the new channel will cover only seven out of 10 homes and that much of London and the south-east, which is the wealthiest market for advertising, will not be able to receive it.
There is a little teaser in the shape of Government amendment No. 382, with which the Government seek to give the Independent Television Commission the authority to grant a part-time licencebetween such times of the day or on such days of the week (or both) as they may determine.That is a fairly feeble way of moving sideways into a great expansion of public broadcasting.
All that the Bill says about Channel 5 is that it shallmake the most effective use of the frequencies on which it is to be provided.Not a word is said about programming, and I do not doubt that ere long I will be told, "That is all right because the people running Channel 5 will provide programmes that attract audiences, otherwise they will go out of business." That in a nutshell is the Government's argument about the application of so-called market forces to broadcasting.
It is reasonable to assume that one of Channel 5's roles will be to fill the gaps between BBC1 and BBC2 and between Channel 3 and Channel 4. All four channels were intended to complement each other and not compete head on, and it was certainly agreed in Committee that Channel 4 has been an outstanding success and has brought much innovation to television. That does not mean that all of us like every programme that Channel 4 presents. None the less, that channel has honoured the remit that it was given.
If Channel 5 is intended to fill the gaps between the existing BBC and ITV services, it is likely that it will end up trying to mimic satellite channels and go for thematic programming, with great wadges of sport, news, and the rest of it. That will not help the development of satellite broadcasting, which has generally been welcomed in all parts of the House, as well as by an increasing number of viewers.
New clause 12 aims at giving Channel 5 a specific role and allowing it to provide programming that is not offered by Channel 3, or at least not in sufficient volume. It 82 deliberately places the emphasis on programmes made in and for a region. That would give the new channel a stronger regional flavour than Channel 3 is ever likely to achieve or would want to achieve. It would also establish an important place for educational or training programmes, or both, on the television viewing menu.
There is a strong demand for such programmes, as the IBA's 1989 survey of attitudes to television revealed. The survey showed that two out of three people would like more nature and wildlife programmes. Broadly speaking, I regard them as being educational. I am sure that no right hon. or hon. Member would argue that educational programmes must be all chalk and talk and conform to the old, narrow view of them. An educational programme can be any that stretches the imagination and opens our eyes and ears to things that are new to us.
Forty-eight out of 100 people in the IBA survey wanted to see more programmes dealing with health and medical topics, while 75 out of every 100 wanted the same or a greater amount of current affairs programming. There appears to be a healthy body of demand for programmes of a factual nature as opposed to those that are purely entertaining—though I do not mean for a moment to deride TV light entertainment. The new clause merely tries to ensure that Channel 5 will have a distinctive flavour and a special role, and to provide ways of achieving that.
Channel 5 offers real scope for innovation. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is no longer in her place, because I know that my following remarks would be of particular appeal to her. Why not a specific obligation on whoever obtains the Channel 5 licence to broadcast more programmes by and for women to challenge head-on the still too-male preserve of much of today's television? There have been improvements, but there is still far too much stereotyping. I made mention of programmes for and by women, but not exclusively so. Such a provision could give a better welcome for women writers, producers and directors in working in, and contributing to, our television system.
What about a better platform for our ethnic communities? Existing ethnic broadcasting is patchy, and there is not enough of it. There could be a proper place for ethnic scheduling in Channel 5, not only to meet the needs of ethnic communities but to enable them to communicate with the rest of us so that we may better understand their concerns and aspirations. One of the complications of the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's book is that most of us have little or no understanding of why it caused so much offence to Muslims in our communities. Television nowhere near properly reflects our multi-cultural society, and I suspect that under the present arrangements it is unable to do so.
The foregoing suggestions are by no means exclusive but serve to outline the shape of the new Channel 5 in more detail than is provided by the 15 lines in the Bill. Its future cannot be left simply to the highest bidder and to the ITC. Our television system has developed on the basis of sensible regulation, and has been built almost brick by brick to expand the range of viewing available and offer more real choice. New clause 12 is part of that continuing process.
My suggestions certainly reflect the last line of new clause 12, which states that the commission has a duty to ensure 83that Channel 5 has a distinctive character of its own.Left to market forces, Channel 5 runs the risk of being shapeless or of pandering to known tastes, the better to maximise audience figures for the benefit of advertisers. If Channel 5 is to work in the way that the Government say they want, it must offer programmes that are not currently available elsewhere. I hope that hon. Members will go along with the spirit of the new clause.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend inject some argument into the debate on issues about which the Broadcasting Bill should be concerned. It was about time.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) in his place. In the last debate on broadcasting he said that, whatever else happened because of the Bill, television would get worse. Everything that has been said throughout the passage of the Bill has borne that out.
The Bill gives us an opportunity. My God, the invention of broadcasting was an immense opportunity to enlighten the world. We can broadcast to the whole of humanity. But the Government want to create programmes which will be left to the moneymakers. We will not have useful information or programmes that the broadcasters themselves might demand to see—we will have programer that maximise the audience.
It is not given unto man to say only what people want to hear. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) referred to the book by Salman Rushdie and the fact that it gives offence. There is little that is creative in the world that fails to give offence. If it does not give offence it does not move people. The same can be said of the path envisaged for Channel 5.
§ Mr. Corbett
The point that I was trying to make about "The Satanic Verses" is that people who are not part of an ethnic community find it difficult to understand the offence that members of those communities feel about the book. I was not pointing out merely that it had caused offence.
§ Mr. Buchan
I take my hon. Friends valuable point. I was not being critical. We do not sufficiently understand the nature of the offence felt by members of ethnic communities about the book. I have had discussions with such communities and I know of the depth of feeling. However, I have often felt major offence and I believe that the reply to a book which gives offence is another book. For example, consider the incident that took place in the west Highlands when the Free Kirk Moderator attacked the Catholic church two years ago, calling it the whore of Babylon and a scarlet woman, and accusing people who attacked the South African regime as attacking it merely because members of that regime are Calvanists, who take the prayer book to a cabinet meeting. A poet gave a reply: Ian Crichton-Smith, who printed one of the best verse polemics that I have ever heard. Nobody said that people should be silent.
We should use broadcasting. I should like to hear Muslims giving their views on Channel 5. I should like to see the issue properly argued and statements made about it. That is what Channel 5 could do. A proliferation of repetitive and competitive channels for the majority of people will not advance viewing for the majority.
With the proliferation of channels we have an opportunity to broadcast minority programmes. Remember that when we talk about minorities in broadcasting we are referring to millions of people. A 84 minority programme may have between 2 million and 4 million viewers. That is a massive audience. It is more than Shakespeare got for his plays in two centuries of performances on the stage. It is a marvellous weapon.
Proliferation to five channels means that there is no anxiety that what Conservative Members crudely call popular will not be televised. There will be no choice if people do not have a variety of channels.
My favourite examples are wildlife programmes. No one would have predicted that wildlife programmes such as those of Sir David Attenborough would have become so popular.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington was too kind to the Government. He said that there are 15 lines describing the new channel in the Bill, but he is wrong; there are only two. The only instructions given in the Bill are that it should.make the most effective use of the frequencies on which it is to be provided.But the most effective use for a commercial channel is that which will make the most profit. That is the only instruction.
In Australia, there are 10 channels and little competition in the type of programmes broadcast, with one interesting exception—an ethnic channel which broadcasts films in Italian, German, the languages of the Indian sub-continent and the aborigine language. In other words, the channel is used to make programmes which appeal to a large variety of people and which enhance their cultures and civilisations. That is a positive force.
The new clause does not mention educational programmes. What involvement will there be with the Open university? If there is none, why not? Is there any reason why such requirements should not be laid down? There is nothing about the extent of documentary coverage. There is nothing about educational program-mes. Conservative Members seem to resent those programmes, and yet they are among the most popular.
To create a new channel with no remit other than to make profit, is intolerable. It is time that we recognised the importance of broadcasting. It is an extension of man's ability to communicate with man—and with woman—and there is no reason why such a channel should not devote more time to that. When we construct a new channel there must be more provisions. Otherwise, we might as well make candy floss and flog it on Blackpool pier.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell
We have heard no arguments about how we can achieve more diversity and pluralism in our television channels. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) has just said. Diversity must be the aim. If we leave the position of this free-standing channel undefined, it will inevitably be driven to broadcast programmes which are the lowest common denominator to attract mass audiences and to survive.
The new channel will be financially vulnerable. Indeed, it has all the makings of a financial disaster, given the scale of competition. We must define clearly the scope of the new channel rather let it be driven willy-nilly by market forces to duplicate the rubbish on other channels.
Each new terrestrial channel which has been created has been complementary to another major channel—for example, BBC2 was complementary to BBC 1, and Channel 4 to ITV. When Channel 4 was created I argued that the Annan recommendation, which was that it should 85 be a free-standing publishing channel, should be rejected in favour of making it complementary to ITV. With complementary channels the viewer has a genuine choice.
In the new clause we are dealing with a free-standing channel in an intensely competitive market. The audiences are already fragmented. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said: the future lies with people getting their main television viewing from terrestrial channels and turning to cable and satellite television for specialised interests such as film, sport, politics, news—there are news addicts as well as sport addicts—or light entertainment. It is difficult to see how a free-standing channel will fit into that situation.
The Government want to let the market decide but in the media the market does not operate effectively because in an unregulated situation the market tends towards competition and towards driving down the level of programmes to the lowest common denominator.
The new channel will have to compete for advertising and it will have to attract advertising revenue. Horses, if fed on the same type of hay, will produce the same manure. To survive, the new channel will be driven down market.
There is a law of competition which is exemplified by the British popular press compared with the American popular press. The latter is insulated from intense competition by local monopolies and is of a higher quality than ours, which is appalling. In many respects it is the worst in the world. Compare television in Britain, which is the least worst in the world because it is regulated and does not suffer from intense competition, with American television, where one has 40 choices to view the same rubbish on different channels.
It is an achievement that we have insulated television by regulation, and by modifying competition and weakening its intensity we have managed to maintain standards. If we now thrust a fifth free-standing channel into an industry where competition is becoming more intense and without a clearly defined brief, we shall condemn it to becoming nothing more than a provider of the lowest common denominator attempting to grab the mass audience. Therefore, we need to define its brief clearly before it starts.
What attracts me about the new clause is that it requires the fifth channel to be of a distinctive character from the other four terrestrial channels. Only by such a process of definition can we ensure the provision not of more rubbish on more channels but of something unique and distinctive so that we advance pluralism and variety rather than produce more opportunities to see lowest common denominator programmes.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I wish to make a different point about the fifth channel. I made it in Committee and I repeat it now. It is all very well for my hon. Friends to say what they would like to see on Channel 5, but people in many parts of the nation will not be able to see Channel 5. The so-called fifth national channel will be physically constrained by transmitters and and by its terrestrial nature and character. Fewer than 40 per cent. of the Principality will be able to receive the signal, so it seems academic to be debating what should be shown on it.
The Minister and others will say that there will be 70 per cent. national coverage, but because of its character 86 and nature—and a decision has been made about the fifth channel—it is not capable of expansion except by further cabling or using satellites for the rest of the nation. It does not have the same capacity that BBC1, BBC2 and ITV have to achieve the national coverage to which we are accustomed—90 per cent. or more.
Therefore, we have every right to say not only that we have grave doubts about what might appear on the fifth national channel and about whether it will become a truly national channel. If it will not—and perhaps I am a lone voice in saying this—a totally different strategy should have been adopted. The alternative to creating a fifth national terrestrial channel which will probably be nothing more than a downbeat version of the other commercial channels reaching out to fewer parts of the United Kingdom is to use the opportunity of a fifth channel to create genuine regional television. Around cities one could have introduced a different diversity from that proposed by my hon. Friends. Rather than using it for a so-called major new national channel, the opportunity should have been used to produce regional and local television, thereby creating diversity.
I do not necessarily give the new clause my whole-hearted support. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) talks about a Channel 5 remit without talking about how far that remit will reach. Everyone has suggested that the channel will be in some difficulty, technically and commercially. There should be a complete rethink about how we use the last available terrestrial resource to produce a different pattern of five-channel television from what has been suggested by the Government and by some of my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). I understand that Channel 5 will reach only about 65 to 70 per cent. of the population; people in his region and parts of Scotland will not be able to see it. That problem needs to be addressed because a new transmission system would be required to enable Channel 5 to penetrate all parts of the country, as I believe it should.
As I understand the Bill, certain of our fears are met by the fact that Channel 5 will have a quality threshold.
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making a point which is easily missed. Channel 5 will have exactly the quality threshold and exceptional circumstan-ces arrangements that will apply to Channel 3.
§ Mr. Banks
In fairness to the Minister, I thought that. I should make that point, but one problem that we raised in Committee and no doubt will return to is that if a franchise application based on high quality is awarded the franchise by the ITC, we want to ensure that if there is any retreat from the standards that gained the franchise in the first place the ITC will be able to claw it back. That needs to be spelt out because our genuine fears would clearly be met by such a guarantee.
It is true that more does not necessarily imply difference, as we have seen in American and Australian television and other television in the world. The amendment is particularly commendable in that it tries to ensure that Channel 5 has a distinctive character. It is difficult to know precisely what role it would shape for itself, given the variety that already exists. However, Channel 4 has undoubtedly created a distinctive role in 87 broadcasting and the amendment is seeking a similar role for Channel 5. I feel reasonably satisfied that, provided that the quality threshold argument is met in full and there is sufficient ability for the ITC to take back the franchise in the event of a franchise holder reneging on assurances given, our fears will be put into context.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has been most helpful because he has touched on a vital point. All the arrangements that apply to Channel 3 apply to Channel 5, not least those which I am most proud of and committed to—the opportunity for much more rigorous enforcement of programme promises than is possible under the existing system.
Channel 5 should be welcomed as an opportunity—not problem-free by any means—to bring relatively straightforwardly to 70 per cent. of the nation an additional terrestrial channel. Of course, 100 per cent. coverage can be obtained only by finding alternative means of transmission. Large tranches of the country cannot be covered as that would interfere with continental signals. That applies not only to Wales. I recognise that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) has been entirely consistent in making that point and I am genuinely sorry that nature does not permit me to meet it.
From a commercial point of view, it is worth pointing out that quite large chunks of southern England will not be covered. Although I believe that Channel 5 will be viable, its commercial base will require some careful thought by those that put in for the franchise. We have BBC1 and BBC2 with their specific remits and we have Channel 4 with its remit to cater for minority tastes even more firmly entrenched in statute as a result of the Bill than it was before; we have Channel 3 a notch down from public service broadcasting with a wide remit as a mass audience channel. That is not the same as a mass entertainment channel. The word almost slipped from my lips, but the House knows that I have added commitments that will ensure that Channel 3 is a great deal more than that. By that definition, Channel 5 will be a notch down from public service broadcasting, but the quality threshold will have to be met. I hope that there will be a genuine and imaginative response by the applicants for Channel 5 which will make use of the potential of an extra terrestrial channel in a new way.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman is terribly active tonight. I do not know whether he is on illegal stimulants.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I am active because I am concerned that the Minister has made so few concessions to sense and rationality on the Bill. The promises and predictions held out on the quality threshold will not apply in the face of financial disaster. We already have the experience of London Weekend Television and TV-am, both of which were allowed to dilute their applications. Yet they were not faced with the dire financial position that Channel 5 is likely to face.
§ Mr. Mellor
The hon. Gentleman betrays his absence —alas—from the Committee. I do not criticise his absence, which may have helped us to get the job done. He is wrong 88 to think that there was little change in Committee. He would know that if he had sat in Committee instead of making a lot of money on Sky Television—which is one of the worst indictments of Sky Television. If he had heard the discussions in Committee, he would know that one source of pride in the Bill for more than just Conservative Members is the fact that as a result of what we have done in Committee we have given the Independent Television Commission far more powers than the Independent Broadcasting Authority ever had to hold people to account for their programme promises. I attach importance to that. The IBA was given a remit which included a nuclear deterrent—the right to take away a franchise, yet it did not have sufficient day-to-day powers, such as the power to fine. However, I was making a somewhat different point.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The Minister has said that many of the provisions for granting franchises for Channel 3 will apply to Channel 5, including the quality threshold. Is it intended that the published illustrative guidelines should also apply to Channel 5? That would also affect its remit.
§ Mr. Mellor
That is more a matter for the ITC; it is not prescribed. We must be aware that, in the end, it is the broadcasters who will give Channel 5 a character, subject to a framework that will be properly administered by the ITC.
As I go round the country meeting different broadcasting interests, I am enormously encouraged by the interest in Channel 5, especially from one or two imaginative groups who see the opportunity of a Channel 5 franchise to broaden their ability to expand the choice on British television. I am satisfied that, if broadcasters do not take that approach, the channel will not thrive. It will not be easy to make Channel 5 successful and it will not happen by just wishing it to he so.
We want to ensure that the ITC has the greatest flexibility in maximising the potential of Channel 5. It is not a statutory requirement, but it is likely that it will advertise the Channel 5 franchise—or franchises—after it has dealt with the Channel 3 franchises to ensure that some who might have preferred a Channel 3 franchise can apply for Channel 5 if they wish. Government amendment No. 382 is important. It would permit the ITC to advertise for more than one Channel 5 franchise, if it thought that right, and to divide up the time if it thought that the channel would be better if there was more than one contractor.
A range of innovative thinking is not blocked out. I have always envisaged Channel 5 as a national channel, but that does not preclude it having local opt-outs. During my discussions with the chairman of the IBA this morning, the idea was mentioned that 50 different towns and cities could participate in Channel 5 and could have local opt-outs. Channel 5 would thus be on a local rather than a regional basis, which is an important idea. It is not precluded by the statutory framework and could be the basis of a serious submission which, on quality grounds, could carry all before it and could be the beneficiary of the arrangement on exceptional circumstances.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I have listened with increasing interest to the Minister. I proposed an alternative structure by which, rather than pursuing a national channel which could not reach the whole nation, we should consider a 89 regional or city structure and create a different and imaginative fifth terrestrial channel. To what extent does the Minister support that idea?
§ Mr. Mellor
I have always considered that Channel 5 should be a unitary channel to succeed, although that may show the limitation of my own imaginative response. Plainly the idea that Channel 5 could involve a host of local opt-outs—far more extensive than the regional opt-outs on Channel 3—is gaining currency in some circles. If a serious bid is made on that basis, the ITC could accept it as we are placing no block on an imaginative response to the potential of Channel 5. The House is in a worse position to determine these issues than those who will have the challenging task of making Channel 5 viable. To win themselves a place in the broadcasting future, they will need to be able to create a specific and different atmosphere on their channel which will attract viewers. They will start with the difficulty of not having national coverage and of not having within their immediate reach some of the most attractive areas in terms of the amount of advertising revenue that could be unleashed.
The ITC will be able to offer more than one franchise. The idea that the system could be based on town or city opt-outs is not blocked, enabling Channel 5 to be a national and a local station. All of that sets a challenge to the broadcasting community and I have sufficient confidence in the broadcasting community to believe that it will respond positively to that challenge. I have been heartened by the number of people—including one or two of the better people whom I know who are involved in various production activities—who are seriously interested in such ideas. Channel 5 will be a good shop window for British broadcasting talent. It will be none the worse if, having set a framework that is appropriate to ensure that there is a decent standard, we leave some of the more creative thinking to the broadcasters and do not try to usurp that function ourselves.
§ Mr. Buchan
I am glad that the Minister is talking a lot more sense than he did in Committee. He has learnt his lessons in our long, three months' struggle. I do not remember the technicalities. However, is he now saying that "exceptional" will apply not only to quality as a result of our discussions in Committee but to interesting and original ideas on the structure, such as his suggestion of opt-outs? Can that now supersede the highest bid?
§ Mr. Mellor
That goes to quality. If someone puts forward a set of proposals with a series of local arrangements within a national framework, nothing would preclude the ITC from seeing that as an exceptionally good quality bid. I see that as part of surmounting the quality threshold. It would be an imaginative response and its evaluation would be a matter for the ITC. I profoundly believe that the remit we give to Channel 5 will prevent it from being lowest common denominator trash. It will also give the broadcasters, who are better placed than we are, the opportunity to find a solution to the key question, "Can Channel 5 find its place in the order of things?" I believe that it can, but only if it receives a highly imaginative response from broadcasters. In effect, I am saying that I trust the broadcasting community to respond, and I urge others to do so.
90 I hope that I have said enough to persuade the Opposition that there is not much difference between us on these matters. Although I realise that this is one of the key areas that the Opposition have identified for debate, I hope that——
§ Mr. Buchan
It might be useful if the Minister could carry his remarks a stage further. The proposals will be going to the other place for discussion and it might help if the hon. and learned Gentleman said not only that such matters were not precluded but that they would be accepted as exceptional. It would help if he took that little step forward to ensure that their Lordships had at least heard the argument. After all, they may be able to secure that which the Minister says he seeks—original ideas and good quality. Why not spell it out?
§ Mr. Mellor
I am arguing that original ideas are the essence of a quality bid but that it is a matter for the ITC to evaluate such ideas. I cannot usurp the ITC's function by telling it what to find exceptional—that would be wrong —but it will have plenty of scope to respond to an imaginative approach.
The ITC may well prefer a set of proposals that suggest a national framework, with no local dimension. I referred to the local dimension because it is certainly not ruled out and could very well be ruled in by the right kind of application. The fact that the chairman of the IBA is very much aware of these matters—he and I have talked about them—is a sign that, gradually and steadily, more people may come to consider them. There is quite a bit of time to go before people have to commit themselves. I am not just a vague believer in Channel 5—I have clear ideas about it —but in the end it will be to the broadcasting community that the challenge will go out.
I shall understand it if the Opposition feel obliged to push the new clause to a vote, but I hope that there has been a sufficient meeting of minds to render that unnecessary.
§ Mr. Corbett
Doubtless buoyed by some surprising local election results in Wandsworth, the Minister has gone a long way to meet the concerns expressed through the new clause.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) made good points about people's ability to receive the proposed new Channel 5. The Minister referred to local opt-out. Large parts of the Principality are opted out, in the sense that they will be unable to receive the channel. I know that that is not what the Minister meant, but that will certainly happen.
Those of us who were privileged enough to serve on the Committee will remember with mixed feelings the advice that we regularly received from Dr. Brian Evans of Tantara Tek—a veritable electronic wizard, who tempted us to look beyond our present penny-farthing arrangements for the distribution of broadcasting. Dr. Evans never ceases to amaze. He was explaining the other day that digital television could overcome many of our problems with distribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was concerned that only 70 per cent. of households in the United Kingdom, and a very much smaller proportion in the Principality, would be able to receive the new Channel 5. It is also the case that only about 70 per cent. of homes in the United Kingdom will be able to receive satellite, because to do so one needs direct line of vision on to the signal. Trees and leaves— 91 even those of broad-leaved varieties of plants—can interrupt that. By the addition of yet another black box —a digital television decoder—we could make use of an existing television aerial to provide either 20 extra channels or 10 extra television channels and 50 extra radio channels for an estimated £250. There would then be no need for unsightly satellite dishes and we should be able to close the gap in the availability of cable television, which, on best estimates, is unlikely to be available to more than about 40 per cent. of those who live in urban areas. Perhaps we have not given enough thought during our proceedings to the technicalities of distribution.
Like many other hon. Members, I welcome the Minister's remarks about what can happen with Channel 5. I make no complaint, except to say that what he said is not immediately obvious from the 15 lines in the Bill and that we are again relying rather heavily on the nice Mr. George Russell. We are used to relying on that nice Mr. George Russell, but some of us wondered whether it would help him if we gave him the odd hint and nudge about what we think Channel 5 might usefully do. The Minister has gone a long way towards meeting the central point that, if the channel is to have any chance of commercial success or of attracting viewers, it will have to provide something that is not readily available on the other channels.
The idea of a national channel from which large towns, cities and conurbations might be able to opt out is an interesting one. We should not get too carried away, however, because making television programmes is expensive, so there is an argument for that idea not being adopted. Most towns and cities that might consider opting out would probably be restricted to about one or two hours a day at best, although the House will forgive me if I say that we in Birmingham would probably manage four hours a day. Such arrangements could provide an interesting mix.
When I opened the debate I expressed some ideas about what Channel 5 might do. I did not mean them to be exclusive. Having heard what the Minister said, I now think that some of those ambitions might be more easily achievable on a local opt-out basis. As I said, if the channel is to succeed, it must have something distinctive about it. It must provide people with a reason for switching over to it and then staying tuned in. The Minister has suggested that there are at least some signs that that is well understood by those in the broadcasting industry.
At one stage in Committee, the Minister was giving out Smarties regularly. It is only right that I should return the compliment and offer him a small chocolate biscuit, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.