ITC sets flawed system to rights

The quality Napoleon most prized in his commanders was luck. Advertisers and commercial TV executives may well come to hold the same opinion about the generalship of Richard Eyre. After staking everything on a doomed campaign to achieve 38 per cent peak time ratings, Eyre’s reputation has bounced back with two famous victories.

The first, seeing off News at Ten, has long been a useful strategic objective to which both advertisers and TV sales houses could rally. Logically, with harshening competition, there seemed little sense in keeping a programme with declining viewing figures that cut across peak time.

There was only one problem with the Great Rescheduling: no one else, from the prime minister to the general public, wanted it. Eyre’s recent savaging at the hands of that culture select committee rottweiler Gerald Kaufman underlined the measure of it. Whatever the commercial logic, moving the News at Ten seemed a dead issue.

Of course, we now know it was not. And accordingly should congratulate Eyre and his colleagues on their skillful and tenacious lobbying. But it is the Independent Television Commission, as final court of appeal, that deserves the most plaudits. Moving the News at Ten was one of two decisions (and much the less important) made by the ITC which has at last redressed the flagrant imbalances of the 1990 Broadcast Act.

The decision to remit 90m in annual licence payments to various ITV companies might at first seem no more than unenlightened commercial self-interest. Certainly it will provide Eyre with a juicy revenue windfall (his second famous victory) that can be invested in better programme quality.

But there is, happily, a good deal more at stake than that. As Torin Douglas points out, the Treasury payment system was fatally flawed from the beginning. The criteria on which consortia made their bids had almost everything to do with active competition at the time and made no allowances for the environment of the future. Thus Central won its licence with an unopposed 2,000 cash bid, while GMTV, which faced two formidable rival bidders and heightened breakfast-time competition, has all but bankrupted itself with a payment of 35m a year to the Treasury.

Tough, say the critics: GMTV gambled and lost. Why should it be recompensed for its financial folly now? But that, to a considerable extent, misses the point. ITV as a whole has been warped by the skewed financial geometry resulting from the Broadcast Act. In taking proper account of the more complex environment which has developed since the beginning of the Nineties and redefining licence payments around actual advertising revenue, the ITC has done not only ITV but the whole of commercial television a service.

Torin Douglas, page 17

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