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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Looking beyond the Bill
Night Fever - Sarah Cawood, Suggs and Will Mellor
Night Fever: Will Channel 5 dance to Murdoch's tune?
test hello test
By Nick Higham
Media correspondent
line

Publication last week of the government's draft Communications Bill prompted predictions everywhere of a frenzy of media takeovers and mergers: the Americans would buy ITV, Rupert Murdoch would buy Channel 5, everyone would be buying commercial radio companies.

In fact, though the government has said it will indeed pave the way for more "consolidation" in broadcasting by relaxing many of the restrictions on ownership of TV and radio companies, the much-discussed deals are neither imminent nor inevitable.

As to what difference it will all make to what we watch and listen to - well, that's anybody's guess.

First, the timetable. The new legislation won't be on the statute book before the end of next year at the earliest - and it might take longer.

Rupert Murdoch
The government denies its bill is framed with Murdoch in mind
Then there's no guarantee that the draft bill will be enacted as it stands - it first has to be scrutinised by a joint Commons-Lords select committee chaired by Lord Puttnam, which will undoubtedly be heavily lobbied by all those unhappy with the bill as it stands.

And even if the provisions allowing Carlton and Granada to merge and a US company to buy the whole of ITV survive onto the statute book, the Competition Commission might still block the emergence of a single ITV on monopoly grounds.

Nor is it clear that US media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom (which owns CBS, Paramount and MTV) or Disney (which owns ABC) really will want to march in and buy up the crown jewels of British broadcasting.

For one thing they are still grappling with an advertising recession back home.

Old-fashioned

For another the "content board" of the new regulator, Ofcom, with its remit to protect the public interest in things like programme quality and diversity, might put them off - by and large US companies don't like regulation, and Ofcom, many of whose staff are likely to come from old-fashioned regulators like the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, might look pretty heavy-handed to them.

Neil Fox
DJ Neil Fox: Will his Capital Radio be the weakest link?
(The ITC is already arguing the need to carry over from existing legislation things like the requirement to conduct annual reviews of licensees' performance and to require a "sufficient provision" of news at convenient times, including peak hours.)

The government says it has been "proprietor-neutral" in drawing up its new ownership rules. This is evidently nonsense.

The rule preventing any company with more than 20 per cent of national newspaper ownership from controlling ITV has clearly been drawn up to exclude Rupert Murdoch, the biggest newspaper proprietor, who also controls BSkyB.

Sky has privately complained about discriminatory treatment, but the government evidently thinks it's reasonable to prevent one company controlling a third of newspaper circulation, the biggest commercial TV channel AND the main pay-TV operator.

Granada TV's Manchester HQ
ITV giant Granada could be under threat
Sky sop

But Sky has been thrown a sop: it can buy Channel 5.

This rather arbitrary decision is a pragmatic move on the part of the government, which tried and failed to draw up an elaborate system for measuring "share of voice" across many different media, and has opted instead for a rule of thumb: ITV has a large audience and can be watched by everyone; Channel 5 has a much smaller audience and doesn't cover the whole country.

Of course, Sky could always make a bid for ITV if Murdoch were to sell some of his newspaper titles. Or it could keep its existing interests and bid to buy Channel 5 to run it as a kind of promotional channel for its pay services - but that assumes the existing owners would be prepared to sell.

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam will be studying the draft bill
United Business Media - which once owned Meridian and Anglia - might sell if the price were right. But the other shareholder, the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, which owns two-thirds of Channel 5, is publicly committed to the expansion of its UK television interests, not to selling up.

Radio waves

Much more likely in the medium term is that the "frenzy of consolidation" (to quote the consultants Ernst & Young) will be restricted to commercial radio, where most observers seem to think just two main operators will emerge.

The two biggest existing companies, Capital and GWR, are both vulnerable to takeover, and many of the smaller operators are likely to receive offers they will find it hard refuse.

Predictions are harder when it comes to the effect on programmes.

Tony Adams and Martin Keown
ITV's Premiership flop encouraged the network to play safe
You could argue (and many already have) that under US ownership British broadcasting will be Americanised still further: commercial radio stations will become more tightly formatted, television shows will become more formulaic.

Decisions about what we watch will be taken by executives who are profoundly risk-averse, interested not in originality or quality but only in ratings and revenue.

But then you could also argue that ITV in particular has already gone a long way in that direction, and that its attempts over the last year or two to try new things - like Survivor and the early evening scheduling of The Premiership - have backfired and merely served to reinforce a cautious approach.

Much of the "Americanisation" of British television is a result not so much of US influence as of increased competition - and that isn't about to disappear, Communications Bill or no Communications Bill.

A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

See also:

07 May 02 | TV and Radio
Communications Bill at a glance
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