Digging up the media landscape

There is, as Britain’s most famous landscape gardener was fond of saying, much capability of change here. The issue, where the UK media landscape is concerned, is what form this transformation will take.

The Communications Bill leaves many things out – and rightly so, because it is a piece of draft legislation, which will require crafting and honing over the next 18 months. Yet some disturbing tendencies can already be discerned in its basic architecture.

Predictably, the concerns of advertisers – major stakeholders in today’s UK television industry – have played little part in the bill’s construction. It has been drafted by a tightly-knit cabal of ministers of the Crown, mandarins and high-minded media experts, more intent upon issues of balance, proportion and the public good than the sordid matter of financial underpinning.

The more cynical among us used to think that balance, proportion and the public good amounted to “stop Murdoch”. But, as it happens, we were quite wrong.

On the contrary, Murdoch has – subject to Parliamentary scrutiny of the bill – been given carte blanche to enter terrestrial television. Why this should be so is not altogether clear. At a guess, it’s a combination of two developments: one, a pragmatic acceptance that Murdoch had won the digital TV battle hands down, despite the best efforts of the establishment; and two, an exasperation with the incompetent home-spun alternative provided by ITV, which demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt the inability of ITV’s present corporate structure – for which read the British commercial TV model – to weather the multi-channel digital era.

The solution proffered by the bill is, in a way, an act of weary abdication. As Torin Douglas points out, it’s an invitation to the Americans to sort out the mess, as in effect they have done with consumer magazines, with cable, outdoor and (allowing for the fact that Murdoch is a US citizen) national and local newspapers. But it’s a solution fraught with problems. It suggests much weight will be put upon an untried statutory regulator, Ofcom, as a champion of broadcasting standards. And it seems to have paid no more than lip-service to the competition concerns of advertisers, without whose enthusiastic support the ecology of UK TV funding, with its careful blend of public, commercial and subscription funding, will be endangered. Here again, Ofcom seems to be the unsatisfactory, and certainly untested, court of appeal.

More upbeat, from an advertiser’s point of view, is the likely transformation of the commercial radio landscape. The abolition of the points system should bring welcome consolidation to a fragmented industry. Where fewer sales points in an already concentrated TV industry could well produce a media-owner cartel, in radio limited ownership consolidation may have the opposite effect, providing advertisers with a more streamlined and attractive proposition.

However, only time, and the vicissitudes of the political process, will show whether the Communications Bill is a visionary piece of legislation, or a weak patchwork quilt, stitching expediency to the inevitable.

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