Trial by TV for ITC

Is the Independent Television Commission fit to rule? It’s not dynamic, it’s not staffed by the right people and it doesn’t understand the changing media market, its critics claim. Oh, and who is Peter Rogers, anyway?

The Independent Television Commission has a new chief executive – Peter Rogers, the former deputy of outgoing chief executive David Glencross. He faces a gargantuan task, not only must he step into the shoes of a man who has unfailingly served the cause of TV regulation since 1970, he must also steer the ITC through rocky waters, ensuring it retains its regulatory position centre-stage.

And it is likely to be a stormy passage. For the body which regulates all UK commercial TV is under fire. At a time when it must redefine itself and its role in an all too rapidly changing media world, it is facing unprecedented criticism. Recent decisions, such as the awarding of the Channel 5 licence, highlighted its favouring of the establishment against newcomers, its critics claim. Various adjudications relating to the commercial activities of its licensees illustrate division within the Commission’s ranks (See Box 1).

Part of the problem is the make-up of the commissioners, one ex-staffer observes. For there are those who seem to grasp the commercial necessities of today’s rapidly changing UK TV and media market, and there are those who do not. “The Commission comprises the great and the good, many of whom just don’t understand commercial issues now driving the whole spectrum of television. Few have ever been involved in programme-making.” (See Box 2)

Central to the ITC’s future position is who will be responsible for awarding licences. Telecoms regulator Oftel has already staked its claim – insisting it, and not the ITC, is best positioned to licence emerging new media services as telecoms, computer and TV technologies converge.

The ITC has stoutly defended its ground, submitting a weighty argument for being responsible for licensing future digital, video on demand and pay per view services.

Although the outcome is yet to be resolved, sources suggest the ITC is playing the stronger hand.

However, doubts remain concerning the Commission’s full understanding of changing technologies and emerging new media. “Video on demand and pay per view are now with us, if in experimental form, and we’ve heard nothing yet in terms of how they could be regulated,” one agency media chief observes. “These are very different services to traditional televsion; they must not, and cannot, be regulated in the same way.”

The ITC’s roots lie firmly in the remnants of the old regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority. When it replaced the IBA, the ITC was given a “light touch” regulatory brief. Instead of previewing programmes and advertising, it would leave policing up to its licensees – the broadcasters. They established their own compliance procedures and set up the Broadcast Advertising Copy Clearance system.

Yet examine today’s ITC, and one could be forgiven for being confused. It employs 180 staff, based in two offices – London and Winchester – to oversee programme quality, standards of taste and decency, advertising, sponsorship and “undue prominence”, or product placement, as well as ensuring licensees stick to the terms and conditions of their franchises. It also oversees ITN, Teletext and the development of commercial digital TV. It even licences broadcasters based in the UK who transmit service elsewhere, such as the BBC’s Continental channels, BBC World and BBC Prime. Certainly, it is a strange definition of “light touch”.

It now lies in Rogers’ hands to position the ITC for the media challenges that lie ahead. Not everyone is convinced the Commission is sufficiently equipped to succeed. “Peter Rogers was not a very popular choice, either within or outside the ITC,” one industry source observes. Rogers served five years as Glencross’ deputy. Inside the ITC he is perceived to be the safest – rather than the visionary’s – choice. Outside, many in the industry ask: “Peter who?”

“I see no evidence yet that they are moving out of the Dark Ages and boldly into the New World,” an ex-staffer adds. It’s not a question of less regulation but the right regulation, he explains. “Continuing existing rules that restrict commercial broadcasters from maximising their audience – producing what most of us want to watch, in peak-time – is totally illogical,” adds an ITV source. Of course, Rogers may change all that. But, many believe, it will take more than just his efforts to see the ITC evolve into a regulatory body fit for the 21st century.

“We are certainly the right body to handle the regulations in the short term future: there is no question of that,” retorts Sarah Thane, ITC director of public affairs. “Since we began we have presided over the arrival of a huge number of satellite services and we are now preparing ourselves for the onset of digital television. The framework of the ITC remains valid but we are not set in aspic.”

“As for the charge we do not understand the commercial imperatives: we have had an industrialist, Sir George Russell, at our helm for the past five years; our new chief executive is an economist who worked in a Treasury think tank and was also a director of C4 for many years.

“We represent the public interest and sometimes that interest demands more of broadcasters than they would like. That doesn’t mean to say we don’t understand their business,” she adds.

Reasons (not) to be cheerful … about the ITC

The licensing process. In olden times, bidders would gather famous faces and present to ITC commissioners: the most plausible won. The Thatcher administration believed this was unfair and should be replaced by straight auction. The 1990 Broadcasting Act was intended to implement this, but diluted the original aim by including a “quality threshold”. Virgin challenged the ITC to judicial review in January after its application for Channel 5 failed the quality threshold. (Virgin’s bid featured an identical price to the eventual winner – Channel 5 Broadcasting.) Its appeal was overturned by the High Court. Victory for the establishment, cynics declared: “The ITC does not favour newcomers”.

Bong! The News at Ten. Last November, the ITC ruled a Monday night edition of News at Ten could not be moved to 10.15pm to accommodate an extended episode of Cracker. Instead, the gritty episode was moved to a Sunday, when the ITC’s rules on prime-time news are less strictly controlled. “Nonsensical”, many observed. The News at Ten slot remains unviolable – untouched by anything, bar the odd live football match, of course.

Meanwhile, the ITC requires all ITV companies to carry Independent Television News. However, a number of ITV chiefs regard the service as over-priced. HTV, YTTV, Anglia and Meridian have expressed dissatisfaction with the current arrangements and are supporting Sky Television attempts to offer its service in competition to ITN.

Advertising and sponsorship. The ITC is internally split between those who recognise the commercial imperatives of today’s UK TV market, and those who do not. Lobbying is underway to persuade them to liberalise the ITC sponsorship code, especially in favour of cable and satellite channels. Numerous non-terrestrial channels have been licensed with little hope of being able to afford to launch, sources claim (see Box 3). The ITC says its guidelines are based on European broadcast law; “Not so,” the non-terrestrial lobbyists retort, “their interpretation is far stricter than European law requires.”

Tone. Last autumn, the ITC published an 80-page research paper on nudity in advertising, concluding that some viewers are offended while others are not (five per cent lust after more, the survey found). Observers verdict: “Po-faced and out of touch”.

The future. The ITC now oversees all commercial terrestrial TV channels – 75 plus cable and satellite services. In theory, it should also be regulating Internet services and emerging new media applications such as pay per view and video on demand. Its wait-and-see strategy is understandable, but many are now asking: just when will it show its hand?

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