3 July 2005

ITV faces £6.6billion takeover bid from Time Warner consortium []

The ridiculous policy of letting foreign companies buy British broadcasters may be about to have a result, if the Mail On Sunday is to be believed (although that is a tall order).

This strange policy, originally mooted by the Tories but brought to gloriously silly fruition by “New” Labour, allows companies like Time Warner in the United States to takeover ITV and Channel 5. Of course, there’s no reason why ITV should be any different from British electricity (Germany etc), British water (France etc), British railways (Netherlands etc) and so much else we all used to own.

But one does have to wonder, who does “New” Labour think this will be good for? What social, socialist or social democratic use will be served by “Britain’s Most Popular Button” ending up in American hands?

Will the quality of ITV’s output improve? Unlikely, given that most American television is downright unwatchable. Will the UK economy benefit? Unlikely, with ITV’s profits following Sky’s and Five’s out of the UK. Will the viewers get a better service? Unlikely, given that the present executives in London are loftily aloof – if you thought getting through to them was hard, try lobbying Los Angeles.

Perhaps what the government hopes to get is a problem off its hands. With ITV plc becoming ITV Inc, the theory would be that no matter how terrible the output, how flagrant the breaches of the OfCom code, the Culture Minister can safely shrug her shoulders and say “Nothing to do with me – it’s an American company, you see”.

If that is the plan, then it’s a good one. Rather than doing anything, the government can act affronted and appalled for us but profess powerlessness. The same as it does with power cuts, water shortages and people dying because the rails aren’t fixed to the damn sleepers.

Of course, what they will get from this will be a more subservient ITV. The 1993 franchise changes managed to rid the pols of a couple of thorns – This Week from Thames and later World in Action from Granada – but the channel could still be a bit more respectful; compared to the American networks treatment of the Bush administration, ITV looks like a bunch of revolutionaries marching on the capital.

That’s bound to help “New” Labour. Unfortunately, politics is about swings, and one day the swingometer will be pointing at blue. Do “New” Labour really want the Conservatives, who will get back into power eventually alas alas, to have the puppy-dog treatment from ITV? Or do they really think they’ll be in power forever – coz that ain’t gonna happen, biased electoral system or not.

Worst of all for the viewer is that once ITV is in American hands, the lobbying against the BBC will go up a notch. Faced with their worst nightmare – a quality outfit not in competition but firmly in the lead – the American owners will want that competition gone. They will demand it. And the UK government will be in no position to say no. Even worse, the lack of entry points into UK broadcasting once ITV plc is gone will lead to lobbying for C4 and the BBC to be broken up and sold off to let the American networks get their hands on the production facilities, popular shows and back catalogues that are needed if you want to start a successful channel in the UK.

Even if this story isn’t true, the time is coming when it will be. Then what will we do?

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