The Government’s Communications White Paper proposes to modernise the British broadcasting and communications industries by creating a single regulator for TV, radio and the Internet.
It claims to create a “forward looking framework for the modern world” by striking a balance between the responsibility of broadcasters to provide a wide range of top quality programmes with the need for lighter regulation to encourage strong competition.
The new umbrella watchdog – the Office of Communications – will take over the roles of the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the Broadcasting Commission, phone watchdog Oftel and the Radio Authority.
Crucially, the BBC remains outside the new regulator’s control and will continue to be regulated by its board of governors, a move which has been criticised by some players in the broadcast industry for creating a two-tier regulatory system.
The Commercial Radio Companies Association (CRCA) says the White Paper is disappointing as it “concentrates almost entirely on television and the further development and strengthening of the BBC”.
The Government’s decision to hand responsibility for regulating broadcast advertising to OFCOM was also a blow to the advertising industry which had been lobbying for a self-regulatory system.
The paper does give a glimmer of hope that a more self-regulatory approach could be considered in the future by praising the effectiveness of the Advertising Standards Association in monitoring press and poster ads and suggesting there may be scope to extend a co-regulatory approach to the broadcast industry.
But the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising says co-regulation is a “half-way house” and is likely to result in more confusion than the present system as it depends on the co-operation between the industry and OFCOM.
“We understand the Government is sensitive about broadcast media but to stop halfway is both pointless and disappointing,” says Geoff Russell, director of media affairs at the IPA.
The paper also proposes an end to the 15 per cent limit on the share of TV audience as well as the rule which prohibits single ownership of the two London ITV licenses – Weekends are controlled by Granada and weekdays by Carlton. The move only fuels speculation about further consolidation and eventual merger of the two companies and their sales operations.
“We welcome proposals to remove regulations standing in the way of a stronger more efficient ITV – able to take decisions more quickly and to invest more in programmes,” says Nigel Walmsley, deputy chief executive of Carlton.
Granada also welcomed what it saw as the Government’s recognition of “the need for further consolidation in ITV ownership”.
Any proposed mergers would be scrutinised by the Competition Commission to assess the impact on the UK market “with a view to safeguarding the interests of consumers and market players such as advertisers”.
Ministers shied away from removing the ban which prevents newspaper owners with a market share of 20 per cent or more from owning more than 20 per cent of a regional or national ITV service but invited comments on relaxing the guidelines.
For media analysts who have followed the drawing up of the paper closely there were few shocks: “The only possible surprise is that they are going to leave the role and remit of the BBC untouched. I thought they would put OFCOM on their back, but on the other hand there is a general election coming up,” says Lorna Tilbian, media analyst at WestLB Panmure.