Assiduous readers of the Daily Express and Daily Star may have noticed something missing this week. It’s not the “&£9.50 holidays” emblazoned across the top of both front pages.
Nor is it the astrologer Justin Toper (billed as “The Daily Star-gazer” in the Star and “Britain’s best astrologer” in the Express). It’s not even Charlie Catchpole’s column (“Britain’s most switched-on telly critic” in the Star and “Britain’s best TV critic” in the Express, but the reviews are word-for-word the same).
No, what’s missing are the listings for digital television channels such as E4, UKTV Gold, BBC3, ITV2 and the Discovery Channel. They disappeared on Monday, following the refusal of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and other broadcasters to meet a demand of &£600 a day for their digital channels’ schedules to appear on the Express and Star listings pages from Monday to Friday (the weekend listings are thrown in free of charge).
Once again, Richard Desmond, the papers’ publisher, is turning conventional wisdom on its head – and the results could be far-reaching. You can be sure other publishers are watching closely.
Just as Desmond has cut editorial costs and made his assets work harder – by running Toper and Catchpole across two of his titles, for instance – he is now seeking to turn editorial information into paid-for advertising.
Charge for the TV listings? You cannot be serious, bluster the broadcasters.
“It’s widely known that the TV pages are a big selling-point for newspapers” says one commercial broadcaster. “This shows a contempt for the readers.”
“It would be the thin end of a wedge and we won’t pay,” says another, while a BBC spokesman says: “We’re not going to use licence-payers’ money to tell viewers what is on the channels they have already paid for.”
You can see why they’re upset. Under the charges demanded by Desmond’s Northern & Shell, each digital channel would have to pay about &£150,000 a year to see its listings in both the Express and the Star. For the Express alone it would be almost &£100,000 a year. That would mean a bill of &£400,000 for UKTV, which last Friday had four channels listed in the paper and on Monday had none.
If other newspaper groups followed suit, the broadcasters’ bill would run into the millions. It’s a far cry from the days when the boot was on the other foot and broadcasters used to charge newspapers a hefty fee for the right to reproduce their TV listings.
Northern & Shell is unabashed. In a statement, it says: “Yes, we impose a charge to promote TV programmes on our listing pages. We are a business operating for profit, looking for commercial opportunities. In return we spend tens of millions of pounds advertising our products through broadcasting outlets. We see no difference in charging them to promote theirs.”
They also point out that the Financial Times and other papers routinely charge companies to publish their share prices. What’s the difference between those listings and the TV listings, they ask?
The key question is who has more to gain or lose here – publishers or broadcasters? Northern & Shell believes it has little to lose and much to gain by charging, since there are now dozens of digital TV channels clamouring for a very limited amount of newspaper listings space.
Indeed, without this market solution to the problem, choosing which digital channels to list is largely a matter of editorial judgement. Last Friday, before its axe fell, the Express listed BBC4, Paramount Comedy, UKTV Documentary, UKTV Food and UKTV Style, none of which appeared in the Star. The Star listed Trouble, Challenge, Extreme and Bravo Digital, all ignored by the Express. Other newspapers make similarly reader-focused choices. The Sun ignores BBC4 but includes National Geographic and Home & Leisure, while the Mail includes Hallmark and UKTV Drama, which several papers do not.
It is significant that the Express and the Star are not charging for the listings of the five main terrestrial channels. They accept that most readers value these highly and that to do without them would harm their papers’ sales. Intriguingly, they give Sky One the same prominence as the main five, and continue to carry full listings for three Sky Sports and three Sky Movies channels.
Does this mean Sky has paid the charges? Neither Northern & Shell nor Sky will say, but there’s a presumption that there must be some form of commercial arrangement between the companies, perhaps a discount on the advertising Northern & Shell takes on the Sky channels.
Broadcasters already accept that they must now spend much more time and money promoting their channels than they did when there were just a handful of stations. They buy huge posters, full-page newspaper ads and small spaces in the listings pages.
Will listings themselves now become part of that marketing activity?
Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News