MPs are pressing Tessa Jowell to intervene to prevent customers losing commercial terrestrial channels when BSkyB upgrades its encryption system. Broadcasters are close to a breakthrough in talks to ensure that ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five will continue to be received by hundreds of thousands of satellite viewers after the BBC withdrew funding for the viewing cards required. MPs are pressing the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, to intervene to ensure an estimated 660,000 viewers do not lose commercial terrestrial channels overnight when BSkyB upgrades its encryption system later this year.

Conservative MP Peter Atkinson and Labour MP David Drew have tabled written questions to Ms Jowell asking whether viewers could expect to see their screens go blank overnight and querying the progress of talks.
The issue is particularly pressing for those who live in rural areas and do not get satisfactory analogue reception, relying instead on free to air digital satellite dishes. Arts minister Estelle Morris said Ms Jowell had received letters from all three broadcasters indicating they were making progress in their discussions to resolve the row. The government was keeping a “close eye” on their progress, she added.

The BBC has already stopped paying for the so-called “solus” card that allows digital satellite viewers who do not subscribe to Skydigital to watch the terrestrial channels. It no longer pays the £12 annual charge for the cards because it decided to opt out of BSkyB’s encryption system in a move that the BBC director general, Greg Dyke, said would save the corporation £85m over five years. TV, Channel 4 and Five initially refused to pay for the cards but it is understood they are close to coming an arrangement that would see them promoting a joint solution, although the money would not come out their programming budgets. In order to keep costs down, viewers may be asked for a one-off fee towards the cost of the cards.
Ms Jowell wrote to the chief executives of the commercial terrestrial broadcasters back in July in an effort to defuse the row, which also threatens to scupper the BBC’s plans to launch a de-facto satellite equivalent to Freeview.

While BBC has opted to broadcast its signals “in the clear”, the other terrestrial broadcasters remain contracted to Sky and continue to have their broadcasts encrypted. ITV said it was keeping a “watching brief” and would monitor the effects of the BBC’s move, but remains concerned about possible rights issues and regional variations.
BSkyB has said it is happy to continue to provide the solus cards to non-Sky subscribers but would only do so if the money was forthcoming. “BSkyB remains willing to offer conditional access services and negotiate provision of solus cards on fair and non discriminatory terms,” said a BSkyB spokesman. The pay-TV operator has already started upgrading its encryption system and, when complete, will send out new cards to its subscribers, rendering any set-top box using a current solus card unable to receive ITV, Channel 4 or Five.

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By Expat