Anger mounts over inconsistent rules for TV product placement

The differing rules on how products in the media can be used has prompted calls for more consistency in the regulation system. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent.

She’s talking out of her Bottomley,” observed the Daily Mirror a few days after Christmas about the Heritage Secretary, the divine Virginia, after she’d expressed reservations about the Christmas Day edition of Only Fools and Horses.

The Mirror had managed (by good fortune, presumably) to get itself and its logo in front of 18.7 million viewers, no fewer than four times.

This was one of those situations from which no-one emerges with credit – Mrs Bottomley for a start. She was only complaining because the Mirror is a Labour-leaning paper.

The Mirror itself was once again trying to sound like The Sun (and not quite getting it right) and failing to appreciate that rules against product placement, surreptitious advertising – call it what you will – are there for a reason.

And the BBC was at fault for having allowed it to happen. If it had been an ITV company the Corporation might well now be looking at a hefty fine for a breach of the Independent Television Commission’s “undue prominence” rule.

That rule, designed to ban excessive use of products and brand names in programmes, regardless of whether a product placement deal exists, has proved to be one of the ITC’s most effective weapons in its armoury of sanctions.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it is unaffected by the new and revised Code of Programme Sponsorship which the ITC published in September, and which is currently the subject of industry-wide consultation.

When the commission’s members sit down to decide the final text of the code, in February or March, they are likely to rubber-stamp most of the draft text. But there are two areas that may give them pause.

The first is “masthead” programming – programmes bearing the names of magazines, which are currently banned in commercial television. Broadcasters and magazine publishers have long argued that they are unfairly disadvantaged by comparison with the BBC, which happily produces magazines linked to successful programmes like The Clothes Show and Top Gear. The magazine publishers would like to do the same in reverse.

The ITC is now prepared to allow masthead programmes – but only up to a point. They would, it says, effectively make magazine publishers a special, privileged case among advertisers and sponsors by giving them the opportunity directly to plug their products in programmes.

That wouldn’t be a good thing on the core terrestrial channels, which are, after all, the only ones which 75 per cent of the population can presently watch. Most of us still need the protection of regulations designed to ensure that it’s programme-makers and broadcasters, not commercial interests, which decide what we watch.

But it would, apparently, be OK in the multichannel world of cable and satellite television, and on the new digital channels, which in any case are short of money and need all the help they can get in funding original programming.

Frank Willis, the ITC’s director of advertising and sponsorship, says the proposals on masthead programming have produced more responses as part of the consultation exercise than any other. Almost all come from terrestrial broadcasters and magazine publishers who say there should be no distinction between terrestrial and non-terrestrial television.

Willis says that’s only to be expected but adds that it’s hard to predict on which side of the argument the ITC’s members will finally come down.

The other thorny question the commission has to tackle is whether it should go further than applying different rules to “core” channels and to satellite and cable, and distinguish between satellite channels and local cable channels.

Live TV has submitted a detailed paper to the commission suggesting that the same sponsorship rules as apply to local radio should be applied to local cable.

The Radio Authority’s sponsorship code is very much more liberal than the ITC’s, and Live TV’s managing director, Kelvin Mackenzie, says it helps give local radio stations a considerable financial advantage over local cable.

Live TV says a “typical” cable station connected to 1.2 million homes can expect income of 3.6m a year, at 25 pence a month for each household connected, plus advertising revenue of about 250,000.

Mackenzie suggests Live TV is “cheap network television”, not truly local TV, and so wouldn’t itself benefit from the kind of changes he is proposing.

But commercial radio is flourishing, and its more liberal sponsorship rules have proved largely uncontroversial. It’s not surprising if Live TV fancies a slice of radio’s sponsorship action.

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