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Tuesday, 12 December, 2000, 03:11 GMT
Making sense of 'alphabet soup'

The UK Government is publishing its long-awaited communications white paper, setting out its proposals for the digital age of broadcasting and telecommunications.

BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas explains why changes are needed to sort out confusion over the existing collection of media watchdogs.

This Christmas, five million families will be watching digital television - some via satellite, others through cable or their ordinary TV aerial - giving them a choice of dozens of channels.

Some will be using the TV to e-mail Christmas greetings, buy presents online, or even listen to digital radio stations. In millions of other homes, people will be using computers or mobile phones to get online, or send text messages to friends.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith
Chris Smith: Seeking consistency
Yet these converging activities are regulated by several different, often overlapping, organisations, overseen by two government departments - Trade and Industry, and Culture, Media and Sport. The latter is headed by Chris Smith.

Complaints about TV and radio programmes are handled by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Independent Television Commission, the BBC board of governors and the Radio Authority.

Complaints about advertisements go to the ITC, the Radio Authority or the Advertising Standards Authority.

Films and videos are classified or cut by the British Board of Film Classification. Economic, ownership and competition issues in the media and telecommunications are subject to Oftel, the ITC and the Radio Authority.

More competition

The government wants to reduce this "alphabet soup" of watchdogs and merge their functions into a single regulator possibly to be known as Ofcom.

It also wants to relax some of the current rules on media ownership and telecommunications to bring greater competition and economic growth from the new media, as has happened in the United States.

One crucial issue is whether the BBC governors, who currently regulate the corporation's activities, should come under the new regulator.

BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland: Independance vital
The National Consumer Council believes they should, claiming the BBC is less independently regulated than commercial broadcasters. It says a single regulator would stop arguments such as the battle over the timing of news bulletins.

The BBC and ITV will go head-to-head at 10 o'clock in the New Year in a move that has angered ministers too.

But the BBC insists the governors are the guardians of its independence from government.

In the White Paper, the government may give the go-ahead for ITV eventually to be run by a single company, although it's likely to insist that there should be two stations in London for some time to come.

Permission for further mergers among commercial radio groups is also expected and restrictions on newspaper groups owning broadcasters could be relaxed.

It's also likely to introduce a "sliding scale" of public service obligations for the various broadcasters, ranging from the BBC and Channel 4 at the top, through ITV, Channel 5 and the satellite TV channels, down to the internet at the bottom.

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