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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 13:23 GMT
British TV 'safe from revolution'
Coronation Street on ITV
UK TV is dominated by home-grown product

Non-European Union companies could buy UK broadcasters such as ITV if the Communications Bill is passed in parliament later this year.

Viewers should not expect a revolution on their TV screens if foreign companies snap up British firms such as ITV or Channel 5, according to media analysts and commentators.

BBC News Online has been told fears that firms such as Disney, Viacom or Rupert Murdoch's News Corp will dump US programmes on British screens once they have snapped up UK companies are unfounded.


There is an assumption the doors will open and hordes of American media companies will rush in

Conor Dignam, Broadcast

And there is plenty of interest in UK channels. In recent weeks media giant Viacom has hinted at an interest in ITV, while there have also been reports linking Channel 5 to Rupert Murdoch, although the media giant has denied any interest in the channel.

Rebecca Ulph, a senior analyst at consultants Forrester Research, said there was not likely to be a "huge scramble by US companies to buy UK firms".

Extra impetus

Conor Dignam, editor of Broadcast, agreed. "There is an assumption the doors will open and hordes of American media companies will rush in. I don't think that will necessarily follow."

Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam said the government should wait
In the short term, Ms Ulph said the lifting of the foreign ownership bar would add extra impetus to a much-discussed merger between Carlton and Granada to form a single ITV company.

"They will see themselves as vulnerable apart but more powerful together," she said.

But she warned: "Companies such as Disney and Viacom will be more interested in them as a single entity and may wait for them to sort out the details of any merger before showing an interest."

Despite Mr Murdoch's reported disinterest in Channel 5, Ms Ulph said the channel would remain an attractive proposition to the tycoon.

'Impact'

"He is always interested in making money and Channel 5 is doing well at the moment.

"It would be a good place to put first-run US programmes, and would give them a way into the terrestrial market.

Channel 5 logo
Channel 5 is considered a target for foreign firms
"Such a tie-up could have an impact on the BBC because it would have fewer opportunities to show programmes such as Buffy or Enterprise first on terrestrial TV."

John McVey, chief executive of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, said foreign ownership was not necessarily a bad thing.

But he said Ofcom had to have the teeth to protect the industry and that there needed to be safeguards for UK programming.

"It is not a question of who but a question of what - what controls will Ofcom place on the owners, what regulation will there be."

The Guardian's media writer Maggie Brown said the government was "absolutely determined to press ahead with measures that allow US, Canadian and Australian companies to buy into the UK market" despite fears expressed by many MPs.

A report produced by the a joint committee of MPs and peers, headed by film producer David Puttnam, recommended the government wait for the proposed regulatory body Ofcom to look into the issue of foreign ownership before pressing ahead with plans.

'Throttling'

But the government's decision to move forward without waiting could cause problems, the Liberal Democrats have warned.

Nick Harvey MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on media, said the government was introducing the changes too soon.

Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey
Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey says the changes are too soon
"We would have some very real concerns about the impact it would have in thwarting and throttling British creativity.

"The government says there are safeguards in place.

"[But] the devices by which the government say we can regulate new American owners are all very new indeed and will be implemented by Ofcom, which is also brand new.

"Our view is to give it a few years - let Ofcom prove its worth and let the legislation bed down. Then it would be time to contemplate a revolution in broadcasting."

'Distinctive nature'

Mr Harvey warned the changes, if not properly regulated, could lead to an increase in American programming on UK screens.

But the government insists it has put safeguards in place, including measures to ensure the distinctive nature of British programming is not altered.

"They are prepared to give a great many guarantees and assurances to protect local content and local domestic programming," said Ms Brown.

"They are looking at the grass roots and independent TV production companies who produce a lot of the hit programmes," she added.

Mr McVey said: "We do not accept that there will be dumping going on because the UK market is pro-indigenous content.

Greater investment

"All ratings show that UK product is the most important."

"We are not going to see The X-Files replacing Coronation Street on ITV," admitted Mr Dignam.

He said viewers would not see any difference to their television for a significant amount of time.

Many in the industry hope that any US ownership would lead to greater investment in programming.

"Hopefully greater funds will be made available for more opportunities for co-producing," said Mr Dignam.


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