British Media Regulator Loosens ITV's Reins

22 January 2009

LONDON: Having whinnied loud and long within the UK's corridors of power, the nation's largest commercial broadcaster ITV yesterday (Wednesday) succeeded in its vociferous campaign to have the regulatory yoke removed from around its neck.

The now-loosened restrictions were applied in 2004 when Britain's agglomeration of regional commercial TV companies merged to form a dominant national entity in February 2004. 

In particular, Ofcom has relaxed ITV's regional programming obligations, including news bulletins.

In its report the watchdog is empathetic: "There is a fundamental tension between ITV's desire to reduce regulatory burdens so as to maximise profits, and its ongoing ability to maintain investment in public service programming."

It acknowledges that the UK is nearing the point where all TV-sets will be digital giving viewers access to scores, if not hundreds of channels. At which point, it says, ITV might conclude that the regulatory obligations of having a public service broadcasting licence outweigh the advantages.

Rationalizes the regulator: "We want to see strong free-to-air commercial networks remain a central feature of the public service broadcasting system in the UK.

"However, it is essential that we establish a model which balances benefits and service obligations for the ITV network on a sustainable basis for the digital age. Therefore we are making immediate reductions to the obligations on the Channel 3 [ITV] licences that will create a more sustainable model in the short-term.

"We believe it should be an essentially commercial network, with a modest but important public service commitment to UK originations and to UK and international news, available free-to-air across the whole of the UK.”

And donning its unpaid consultancy hat, Ofcom also suggests it might be in ITV's interest to operate on a 24-hour basis – a move that would require it to buy-out the 25% held by the Walt Disney Company in the breakfast TV licence now held by GMTV.

Barely restraining a whoop, ITV huzzahed: "Ofcom's report today demonstrates that they understand these difficulties and are working with all the players to find short- and long-term solutions. The status quo is not an option for any of us and it is gratifying that both the government and Ofcom have grasped the urgency of the need for change."

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff