Lawyers and deal-makers ready to dominate 1996 media battle

The coming year will see a fiercer battle being waged for the control of media outlets and products.Torin Douglas is currently the BBC TV’s media correspondent

In the media world, 1996 seems likely to be the year of the lawyer – particularly Richard Branson’s lawyer.

Later this month, the Independent Television Commission faces a judicial review of its Channel 5 decision, brought by Branson’s Virgin Group. That will run concurrently with lottery regulator Oflot’s inquiry into Branson’s allegations against the head of the American lottery company G-TECH.

Parliament will be debating the Broadcasting Bill, which, among other things, will extend Virgin’s national radio licence, providing it invests in digital radio.

One man who will watch all three proceedings with close interest is Sir George Russell, chairman both of the Independent Television Commission and of the lottery operator Camelot. He can console himself with the thought that he no longer has responsibility for radio, or that would have provided another stage on which to cross swords with the bearded wonder.

Lawyers apart, 1996 will also be a good year for media lobbyists, deal-makers and TV engineers. The latter group are all geared up to re-tune millions of video-recorders, providing Channel 5 is not delayed by the courts. Since the fifth button on most TV sets is already used to receive either cable, satellite or the VCR signal, the job is likely to be somewhat more complex than a quick twist of a screwdriver. Those who aren’t employed in that task will be installing satellite and cable, or preparing for at least 18 digital TV services that will be unleashed by the Broadcasting Bill.

Sparing political disasters, 1996 will be remembered for a Bill which will also put newspapers in bed with TV and radio companies and will consolidate ITV into still fewer hands. The lawyers and lobbyists will be scrutinising the Bill line-by-line as it goes through Parliament, while the deal-makers prepare for the wave of takeovers that will follow.

In the words of Associated Newspapers’ chairman Sir David English: “There won’t be newspaper companies any more, we’ll all be multimedia companies.” Up to a point, Lord Rothermere.

Some newspaper groups may prefer to stick to their knitting. But there is no doubt that the Government has gone further than expected in liberating the media ownership rules and that will bring some ITV companies into play sooner than anticipated.

The lobbyists have already succeeded in changing the Government’s mind on several issues since last year’s two White Papers. It has scrapped the two-ITV-licence rule and its original proposals for digital multiplexes, and bowed to the campaigns by Channel 4 and Classic FM for changes in their financial and licence conditions.

One issue that could now come to the fore is that of TV sports rights, in the wake of Sky buying up rugby league, boxing and all live league football, and the BBC losing the FA Cup and Formula One motor-racing to ITV.

The lawyers and deal-makers are already examining other prime sports properties such as the Five Nations Championship and Wimbledon – including those which do not expire for several years. As the BBC learned to its cost over Formula One, loyalty counts for nothing and some deals are now done before the existing rights-holder has been invited to tender.

The lobbyists will be looking for ways to slow the pace of change, as fans, viewers and legislators start to absorb the full impact of pay-TV’s impact on sport.

There is no doubt that for those willing and able to pay for Sky Sports, the coverage of many sports has improved both in quality and quantity. And with Sky now claiming 5 million subscribers – BARB makes it slightly fewer – many sports fans are benefiting.

But millions more have been deprived of coverage they have come to expect and this is surely having an adverse impact on those events shown exclusively on Sky. Neither the European Ryder Cup victory nor Frank Bruno’s world heavyweight championship win received the public attention they deserved, and would have achieved if they had been shown on ITV or the BBC.

The FA Premier League is different, because even though Sky has exclusive rights for live coverage, the BBC can show match highlights and makes the most of them, with Saturday’s Football Focus and Match of the Day. That keeps the League’s profile high.

Significantly, the FA’s commercial director Trevor Phillips says he cannot foresee a day when the FA Cup Final will be shown exclusively on satellite TV. He recognises the need for a mass audience for a truly national event.

Despite that, 1996 will mark another significant stage in pay-TV’s dominance of sport, when BSkyB screens the UK’s first full-scale pay-per-view event.

It is still not clear what the first programme will be – it could be a concert or film premiere rather than sport.

Although sport offers the highest profit potential for pay-per-view, many MPs are now so concerned about the issue of TV sports rights they may try to tighten the rules.

For that reason, BSkyB might be well advised – by lawyers, lobbyists and deal-makers – to delay its first pay-per-view sports event until the Broadcasting Bill is securely through Parliament.

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