ITV Digital is the televisual Queen Mother. We all know it is going to go, we just can't quite pin a date on the unhappy event. Staff at Granada and Carlton
ITV Digital is the televisual Queen Mother. We all know it is going to go, we just can't quite pin a date on the unhappy event. Staff at Granada and Carlton will last week have pressed their white shirts and cleaned their black ties as the two shareholders admitted that the platform needed a 'fundamental restructuring'.I'm sure that if Sir Robert Mottram, the foul-mouthed senior civil servant at the transport department, was in charge of this monkey business he would be lining up a whole host of swear words to describe ITV Digital's indisposition. We know that from the moment the ITC took the fatally flawed decision to create a digital platform war by excluding BSkyB from the digital terrestrial consortium, there would only be one winner.Unfortunately, the problem for Carlton and Granada is that while pulling the plug on ITV Digital is now the preferred option, it is hard to see how this could ever happen. Unlike the failure of BSB, there is no obvious solution for the 700,000 to 1 million ITV Digital customers. The whole marketing campaign was predicated on the fact that ITV Digital was not Sky, therefore even if its shareholders wanted to merge the businesses one can see how its customers might be less than chuffed.Second, if they don't merge the platforms, there is still the ongoing problem of the subscriber base and customer care. Even when Pace launches its much-vaunted digital terrestrial box in a few weeks' time, it is hard to see who is going to tackle this particularly knotty problem. Pace's third profits warning in six months does not bode well for even getting its new product off the ground.Like newspapers, TV companies are by and large completely ill equipped to deal with one-to-one customer relations. Their businesses are about the wholesale trading of advertising, not about micro-payments and mending aerials. Only Sky of the pure TV companies has cracked the subscription management issue and that at a great deal of expense and 10 years' worth of learning curve.While Granada and Carlton are concentrating on trying to renegotiate their content contracts with the football league et al, the longer term problem will be the disengagement from being in the customer service business.It is a potentially costly millstone that is set to dangle around their necks for the foreseeable future. Even the cable companies are in no position to throw them a lifebelt; both NTL and Telewest have capped digital TV spending for this year and are concentrating on sweating their existing customers rather than taking on a whole bunch of low-value new ones.So what is the answer? A free-to-air digital TV platform will limp along, possibly ending up as part of a BBC-controlled protectorate. The programming packages will have to find their way on to Sky Digital if they are to ever recoup their cost. Or they will have to be unpicked and sold off a la the Kirch Group's German auction. When the ITC made its dumb decision to set up a platform war, it proudly announced it was protecting diversity and competition. What it has actually done is go one step closer to giving us a TV market dominated by Sky and the BBC.