Advertisers are waiting with bated breath to hear what Stephen Carter has to say when he steps into the role of chief executive of Ofcom in March. The only signs of any views that he may have on the regulation of the telecoms and media industries are those he expressed at NTL – from which he has now sought to distance himself.
During his time as managing director of the cable company he called for the BBC to be brought under the control of Ofcom, berated authorities such as the Office of Fair Trading for being overly slow and warned that the new regulator should keep a close eye on the market dominance of BT and BSkyB.
Instead of doing the judging, he will now be the man being judged.
For advertisers there are four main issues that concern them. The first is whether Carter will prove to be a light-touch regulator in accordance with the spirit of the new Communications Bill. According to his friends Carter is an advocate of ‘joined-up’ government, policy and regulation and, in the case of the latter, is in favour of a light-touch approach. But the proof will be in eating the pudding.
One of the first tests for him in this area concerns the possible self-regulation of broadcast advertising by the advertising industry. Ofcom chairman Lord Currie has already indicated that if proposals being drawn up by the Advertising Standards Authority meet with Ofcom’s approval, then self-regulation will be given the green light.
But the role of Ofcom is less well defined when it comes to the proposed merger of Carlton Communications and Granada. It is likely that the thorny issue of a single ITV, and what that may mean in terms of advertising sales, will at some point be considered by the new regulator. Little evidence can be found of Carter’s views on this subject, but as a former candidate for the role of the chief executive of ITV, he must have given the subject some thought.
And finally, one issue on which commercial broadcasters are just as eager as advertisers for some action to be taken is the resurgent BBC. But Carter may have his hands tied, as the Communications Bill does not currently allow for the corporation to be regulated by Ofcom in the same manner as its commercial rivals.
Carter, who’s an ambitious man, will not want simply to be known as the individual who helped set up Ofcom as an organisation. He will want to make his mark by dealing with tough regulatory issues in a fair and uncompromising manner. A workaholic, as some of his former colleagues have described him, Carter is unlikely to shirk his responsibilities, but he may just be thwarted by the time-consuming bureaucracy that goes hand in hand with regulation and publicly funded bodies such as Ofcom.