Undoing the inevitable 

1 January 2003 tbs.pm/1861

So it’s official. The government’s Broadcasting Bill will clear the way for further consolidation in ITV ownership, continuing the trend that has seen the number of separate companies holding a Channel 3 licence has fallen from sixteen to six.

Once proud names such as Anglia, Tyne Tees and Border are now just outposts of their parent company’s empires, while Central – which can trace its history back to the very first day of ITV itself – has lost both its independence and its name.

Some reduction in the number of companies was probably no bad thing, as the idea of a dozen or more separate mini-BBCs is clearly outdated in a multichannel age. But while Carlton and Granada’s obsession with consolidation might be good news for their shareholders, their viewers haven’t been so lucky.

As the pair’s power has grown (Carlton own four licences, plus a stake in GMTV, while Granada have seven, plus shares in GMTV and Scottish Media Group), so the variety of ITV’s output has declined. Once Coronation Street was ITV’s only year-round primetime soap, and even then it was only on twice a week. Now its frequency has been doubled, and Emmerdale has joined it five nights a week as well.

Elsewhere, it’s often a case of “more of the same – much more,” as the network often relies on the same series as it did five or ten years ago. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with long-running series. But ITV is now reaping what it has sown over the last decade, and the harvest is looking increasingly thin as series after series is allowed to stagger on well past the obvious sell by date because there’s nothing else to replace them.

Although the old system of network scheduling was often a stitch-up at the expense of the smaller companies, at least with five major companies pitching ideas and series, there was a greater variety of programming coming to the screen than there is at present, even if this meant that some series ended before their time.

Plus, of course, there was the addition of the contract round once every decade or so that kept companies on their toes. Although the effects of this can be exaggerated, it did at least force some changes upon ITV, such as Central’s junking of most of ATV’s children’s programming and the fact that Thames didn’t just continue churning out much of Rediffusion and ABC’s previous output.

But any future ITV franchise round would be virtually pointless. There’s no need to ration access to the broadcasting spectrum these days, and Carlton and Granada’s hold on the network means that they’d have to lose several franchises for any changes to be effective.

The government’s proposal is therefore the easy option. Carlton and Granada want to merge, so the government plans to let them.

According to ITV’s “thinking”, this will enable it to compete more effectively at both home and abroad. Even for a government steeped in spin, it’s depressing to see them falling for this sort of nonsense, especially since the facts don’t back up Carlton and Granada’s claims.

On the international front, a single ITV company is unlikely to do any better than Carlton and Granada have over the past ten years. In many markets – Canada, Australia and cable and PBS stations in the USA, Carlton and Granada already have a major advantage over a lot of the competition. It’s called the English language, and would apply whether Carlton and Granada are one company or two.

Sales to the US networks won’t be improved either, because the US networks simply aren’t interested in overseas programming. At best, sales will be limited to formats, as demonstrated by the snapping up of ‘The Weakest Link’ and ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’, with both of these now demoted to daytime syndication. Drama or comedy sales will also be limited to selling the rights to a US remake, as witnessed by The WB and UPN buying US remakes of ‘The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star’ and ‘As If’ respectively. And before Carlton and Granada get excited there, it’s worth pointing out that neither of the above quiz shows was made by Carlton or Granada, and the other two series were on Channel 4 (and neither of those could be classed as a “success” in the US anyway).

This only leaves the home front, and it’s equally easy to find the flaws in Carlton and Granada’s thinking here as well.

ITV is already the most watched commercial channel in the UK by a long way, and it’s unlikely to lose this position for a good few years yet. Admittedly, its audience has declined in recent years, but this was only to be expected when viewers are presented with more choice. Arguably some of this decline could have been offset by successfully reacting to the new multichannel environment. Instead, ITV companies have served up a succession of short-lived and mostly ill thought out channels, including Sky Scottish, Granada Breeze, Talk TV, Carlton Select, Carlton Kids and, most famously of all, ITV Sport. In fact, while channel closures are a regular occurrence these days, it’s difficult to think of any single broadcaster with a failure rate as high as Carlton and Granada.

Yet Carlton and Granada want a reward for their failures, and expect the government to leave them in charge of the UK’s largest commercial free-to-air channel.

The original ITV contracts were awarded on the basis of competition and it was made clear that they weren’t permanent, as TWW found out to its cost. The digital environment means that any broadcaster can now be as permanent as it wishes, but the government can still maintain competition with the free-to-air market.

The solution is simple. Instead of green lighting a Carlton/Granada merger, the government should force them apart. Digital television already needs a boost that hundreds of pay channels and cheapo-free-to-air stuff like ITV2 are going to bring, but another, major, free-to-channel could provide this.

As a non-ITV viewer, I believe that a lot of its current malaise is down to its position as the UK’s most watched commercial channel. It expects to win almost every head-to-head ratings battle, and its advertisers and viewers expect the same.

The result is a channel where risk-taking is now an anathema. If a programme doesn’t beat whatever’s on BBC One at the same time, then it’s a flop and must be replaced at the earliest opportunity. And what better way to guarantee ratings, at least in the short term, than by pulling out an old favourite once more? But this also means there’s no time to develop programmes, formats or stars. Even the old trick of signing up an ex-soap star on an exclusive contract is pointless if you haven’t got a suitable vehicle for them to star in.

At a stroke, splitting up Carlton and Granada would ensure that digital viewers had more choice and that both had to work harder for an audience, rather than relying on viewers’ tendency to automatically press buttons 1 and 3 when changing channels.

No doubt both would argue that they’re too small to sustain their own networks. After all, wouldn’t two channels merely be splitting up an already declining audience?

At a glance, it would seem so, but this fails to take into account the change in viewing patterns that digital television brings. More channels inevitably brings more choice, and fewer viewers watching a particular channel at a given time, especially when the increased amount of live sport and the fact that channels such as Sky One are full of series that run for 20 or more weeks in the same timeslot.

“Catch-up” repeats and omnibus editions already form part of most major channels’ schedules, and these would inevitably be a feature of any separate Carlton and Granada channels. But instead of being bunged in half-heartedly, these could be much better planned to take advantage of other channels’ schedules.

For example, if Carlton retained the rights to the Champions League coverage, then Granada might decide that Wednesday nights provide a good opportunity to allow viewers to catch-up on some of its weekend dramas, similar to the way that BBC Choice did a couple of years ago. Elsewhere, they would be plenty of timeslots where one of the two new channels would be quite happy with second or third place in the ratings – Carlton would be up against soap operas on BBC One and Granada for at least an hour a night Monday-Friday, so this would be an ideal opportunity for some counter-programming aimed at non-soap fans.

This scenario could also see the strengthening of regional programming. Currently ITV1 only makes a token effort, with a couple of half-hour slots when EastEnders is on the other side, but with more slots to fill, well-made regional programmes could have more of a place in the schedule. Since Granada produces ITV1’s entire 7-8pm networked weekday programming, Carlton might decide that not to have any networked programming until 8pm, opening up new slots for local news, sport and other programmes. Or it could use the slots to try out new series in the expectation that most viewers will be watching the other side.

Some viewers could also benefit from the two networks running slightly different regional structures. Using the current UHF transmitter system to provide an example, we could see, say, Carlton dropping the south midlands sub-region, and handing Ridge Hill over to its west of England service, while Oxford and Hannington get a Thames Valley service. One network might cover Cumbria through a North of England service, while the other covers it as part of a Northwest region.

Although Carlton and Granada would each own their own networks, we could see a situation where they decided to offload the production of much of their local programming to independent companies. In effect, these could be mini-ITNs, since they would be able to produce news and other local programming for television and radio, and could provide a way for existing media organisations to expand rather than merely being swallowed up by large companies who couldn’t care less about local or regional output.

On analogue, separate Carlton and Granada networks would be impossible. In the short run, ITV1 could continue, but viewers might find that Carlton and Granada’s digital networks show programmes first, similar to BBC Choice showing 24 a week before BBC Two. Eventually the Carlton and Granada franchise areas could carry their parent companies’ networks, with the regulator ensuring that non-digital viewers don’t lose out entirely by allowing some exchange of programmes between the two companies.

Other ITV ownership issues can be dealt with quite easily.

Separate Carlton and Granada networks would mean the end of a separate breakfast franchise. GMTV could continue, however, as an independent production company making programmes for Carlton and/or Granada, even though the regulator might force one or both of them to divest themselves of a stake in the company.

On the other hand, little would be gained from forcing them to give up their ownership of ITN. Both channels would still require news, and it seems unlikely that the UK could support any more TV news organisations that the existing trio of the BBC, ITN and Sky.

Of course, Carlton and Granada aren’t the only current ITV companies, and the situations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands would need to take this into effect. Possibly the companies in these regions could become affiliates to one of the networks, retaining their independence, producing their own local programmes but taking the bulk of the network schedule.

“Competition” is a favourite buzzword of most governments. “Analogue switch-off” is certainly a favourite expression of the current one. Splitting up Carlton and Granada would provide increased competition and give more viewers an incentive to switch over to digital. But it’s not the easy option, is it?

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