1 December 2002

It seems as though ITV has been working up to this since the early 1990s. Ever since Yorkshire Television took over its smaller neighbour, Tyne Tees, ITV has been driving along one road. Destination – one single ITV company.

Not long after, LWT fell into the hands of Granada and Central went to Carlton. Since then the consolidation continued unabated, until just Border, UTV and Channel remained alone. And then Border was pounced upon by Capital Radio. Only concerned about Border’s radio interests (which included the Century stations), Border was sent off to the welcoming arms of Granada Media.

From where there was once 16 companies running the network, now there are just 5. Bar Channel, UTV, Scottish and Grampian, Carlton and Granada own the rest. And now the two giants want to become one.

If it goes ahead as expected, the merger will consolidate all the ITV companies in England and Wales into just one company, dubbed ITV plc.

Those in charge at Carlton and Granada have so far stated that owning the other pieces of the ITV puzzle isn’t a priority for them. Given the size of the pieces, it is not particularly surprising. No doubt if they came on the market at the right place, they’d be slotted into the new empire quickly, but the new ITV plc won’t want to pay over the odds.

And lo, nearly fifty years of broadcast history will disappear. The regional franchises system, which the ITV companies once used to their advantage, looks increasingly like a waste of time. What really is the point of having a series of regional franchises, when just one company will control most of the regional franchises?

Should a franchise renewal come along, what will happen? Will the new monolithic ITV be stripped of a region? Is anyone even going to bother bidding when they know that they’re up against a company that controls most of our nations biggest commercial broadcaster? And even if they did, and they won, how long would be remain independent, before the biggest company in the market bought them out?

It has been over ten years since the last franchise round which lost Thames and TV-am from our screens, but in those ten years, the franchise system used then now looks completely irrelevant.

It’s not just the actions of the ITV companies that will cause problems for franchise renewal. The whole television market is slowly changing. The move to digital will eventually see analogue transmissions turned off.

In the past if an ITV franchise was lost, there was nowhere for them to go. Only Thames managed to carve out a post-ITV life for itself.

Once analogue transmissions are turned off, ITV’s options are much more open. It easily could leave its current home on DTT, and move to broadcast via satellite and cable, or possibly take up space on Freeview. Coronation Street and The Bill could even be taken to pay-TV. In one swoop, the remit to broadcast regional programming would disappear, leaving a rump national broadcaster, with a lot of small regional centres to close, and lots of staff to be made redundant. Loosing its current franchise would be little threat.

On the other side, who would even want to bid for a regionalised franchise network? If the regional franchises were merged into one national franchise but with a regional element, any new operator would have huge start-up costs in order to establish a regional presence across the UK. For a new television company, trying to break into the market is hard enough as Channel 5 found, but establishing regional newsrooms and studio facilities would be even harder. Any brand new station would no doubt prefer a single, national franchise.

Of course an existing operator (like Channel 5) could bid for their competitor’s license, but why would they want to move to what would be a more costly operation?

Regional programming is too important a part of the equation to be dismissed – ITV is the only current commercial television network to include a regional presence, and despite its current sorry state, its destruction would be a loss to the nation. Yet if we don’t do anything, the combined Carlton and Granada monolith will have a right to broadcast indefinitely.

It seems clear that when the time comes, a whole new solution will need to be found.

The sensible model would be to simply start again from scratch. The existing ITV services could be made into a single national channel, and moved onto another multiplex – this would also allow the amount of space ITV occupies on satellite to be decreased. In its place, a new system of small, regional franchises, with strict ownership rules.

The franchises could then band together to produce a set amount of networked programming, as well as producing a variety of regional programming for the area they serve.

ITV plc, with its regional commitment removed, would be no doubt keen to sell off some of its regional centres to the new franchise owners, or could even bid for some franchises itself.

There would be risks involved – income may be low, and moving regional programming off a major channel may dent audience figures. However local programmes often perform strongly in the ratings and the ability to target advertising at specific parts of the country will be attractive to some.

It probably wouldn’t be a major cash generator, and revenues to the treasury for the right to own the individual franchises may be low. The system may even need some public subsidy in the early years, but rather than have no regional programming at all, or a sole operator able to blackmail the regulator with threats to withdraw certain regional programming, it seems a sensible solution.

If a combined ITV plc was to decide it wanted to withdraw from regional broadcasting, there seems little hope of anyone taking their place as a company running a regional network with a national license. Perhaps the solution really is to take a step back in time.

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