Easy options 

28 July 2008 tbs.pm/929

Plans for reduced public service role are good news for ITV

Despite much talk of ‘radical’ solutions being required for the “digital age” – whatever that is, although for the majority of people it just means more repeats, woefully produced reality TV, shopping channels, a few more BBC television channels and the BBC iPlayer – the options for change are still distinctly limited, no matter what politicians like to think.

Unless fundamental issues such as the viability of ITV regional licences as well as contract rights renewal are also addressed, giving ITV more leeway in its regional commitments will only be surface dressing that will also serve to inflame commercial rivals who feel that ITV has a privileged position that needs to be defended.

Contract rights renewal was simply a ‘patch’ that permitted Carlton and Granada to merge their television operations in order to create ITV plc, which from both public and shareholder perspectives still hasn’t been the stellar success that was originally promised, to put it mildly, and most of the sceptics were inevitably proved right in the end.

Indeed the only endgame scenario that hasn’t occurred yet is ITV plc falling into the hands of foreign ownership, although economic circumstances are the only thing preventing this from happening at present. Ofcom seems scared of ITV handing back its regional licences, though the exact reasons for this is another matter entirely.

At least this time round there appears to be no empty promises coming from ITV that will be broken at a later date, as was the case with the Carlton-Granada merger that in part promised ‘world-class programming’ (allegedly) – the concepts of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ still seems to be strangely absent when it comes to Ofcom and the regulation of Channel 3.

As for the relationship between the licence fee and the BBC together with the potential outcome from the BBC’s perspective, some of the blame can be pointed at BBC management for the (attempted) policy decision – does the BBC appear to be badly missing the so-called ‘surplus’ licence fee cash redirected towards the digital switchover?

There have been no cancelled events, no blank screens and no discernable protest from BBC management or staff in respect of the missing cash; certainly nothing that is or was clearly visible from a public perspective, and no additional clues proffered as to what may have otherwise been done with the missing money.

Giving money to Channel 4 from the licence fee was really the only ‘radical’ option that Ofcom could come up with that may be deemed somehow as workable, although a much greater test will be whether giving money to Channel 4 in this fashion counts as an illegal public subsidy under European Union rules.

Ofcom must feel that there must be a fair chance of the Channel 4 proposal being workable in some form, so to speak, although there is always the suspicion that these plans represent a last ditch throw of the ideological dice in respect to ‘top-slicing’ the licence fee.

And of course Ofcom’s chairman is about to depart anyway so he will be well out of the picture if/when any final decision on this issue is made.

Because if the Channel 4 subsidy proposal falls through – and it still could – then additional uses for the licence fee in this manner may be impossible. Combine this with additional public money for public service broadcasting being unavailable, then Ofcom definitely appears to have its hands tied when it comes to formulating public service alternatives.

Unless, of course, there are no alternatives at all.