Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Into Five Won't Go

Fascinating piece by James Robinson in today's Media Gruniad. 'ITV has drawn up a radical plan for a three-way merger with Channel Four and Channel Five that would prompt one of the biggest shake-ups in British broadcasting history,' it claims. 'Executives from ITV, which is expected to report a huge drop in profits when it unveils its annual results for 2008 next week, believe merging the UK's three main advertiser-funded commercial broadcasters may be the only way to guarantee its survival in the face of the most challenging market conditions for a generation. ITV executives are thought to have outlined the plan to government along with several other options.' One of ITV's alleged proposals - and, remember, these claims made by Robinson are, as yet, unsubstantiated, is to roll the three main advertiser-funded commercial channels – ITV, Channel Four and Five – into one, creating a broadcasting giant which would rival the BBC in scale and scope. This combined operation would save hundreds of millions of pounds by merging back-office functions and cutting jobs, which would allow it to continue to invest in programming across its three main terrestrial channels and smaller digital outlets, including ITV2, Film4 and Five USA. However, the new broadcaster would control well over sixty per cent of the British TV advertising market, and the government would have to set aside competition law for the merger to take place. It would also infuriate commercial rivals, most notably BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is the largest shareholder, which would face a powerful new competitor. One of ITV's - alleged - alternative proposals is to turn Channel Four into a fully fledged public service broadcaster that would no longer be funded by advertising. The assumption behind this option is that a significant proportion of Channel Four's commercial revenue would then flow to ITV, which is suffering from a dramatic fall in advertising as the economy deteriorates. ITV is widely expected to confirm that revenues have fallen by up to twenty per cent in the past few months when it updates the City on Wednesday, 4 March.

Both options have allegedly been described as 'seismic' by alleged - though nameless and, therefore, quite possibly fictitious - industry 'sources', and may be designed to drive home to the government the scale of the crisis that ITV is facing. ITV executives, led by chairman and chief executive Michael Grade, are trying to persuade the government to remove more of its expensive public service obligations and abolish the contract rights renewal regime, which governs airtime trading deals with advertisers. The radical ITV proposals are likely to feed into communications minister Lord Carter's final Digital Britain report, due to be published in early summer. Last month Carter's interim Digital Britain report backed the idea of creating a new commercially funded public service broadcasting body, with Channel Four at its heart, to provide competition to the BBC. Carter and media regulator Ofcom have both indicated that their preferred way of achieving this is a partnership between Channel Four and BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm.

The next most favoured option is a merger between Channel Four and Five – or possibly another media company, including ITV. Yesterday Carter revealed that other companies apart from Five were interested in a tie-up with Channel Four. 'Have we had approaches from other private sector parties that look on paper to have come up with ideas that could work? Yes, we have,' he said. There are rumours that US media companies are examining a bid for Channel Four. Under the terms of its terrestrial licences issued by Ofcom, ITV must make a proportion of programmes outside London and produce local news bulletins, although it has already implemented plans to reduce its regional news output.

Many of those PSB commitments have already been scrapped but ITV is also calling for the removal of CRR, the system that caps how much advertisers pay for airtime on ITV. CRR was put in place when Carlton and Granada merged to form ITV plc in 2003 to assuage the concerns of advertisers worried that the new company, which at the time controlled more than fifty per cent of British TV advertising, would abuse its market power. The new, proposed, ITV/Channel Four/Five combine - if it goes ahead - would wield even more clout, but the fact it has, allegedly, been mooted at government levels demonstrates just how great the dramatic decline in ITV's fortunes over the past year to eighteen months had been. ITV is likely to announce up to five hundred redundancies from its four thousand five hundred-strong workforce during the next week, less than six months after the last rounds of significant job cuts, which, then, led to the departure of approximately one thousand staff.
Like many large companies, ITV is also struggling with a growing pension fund deficit and there is a fear its share price could tumble again next week. ITV's share price has already tumbled from one hundred and forty pence at the time of the Granada/Carlton merger to twenty three pence at yesterday's close and further falls could make it more difficult to service it debts. The company is also likely to introduce measures previously ruled out by Grade, including trimming its one billion smackers programming budget in order to save costs. Some dramas, including an expensive remake of Passage To India and Wire In The Blood - a particular favourite of this blogger - have already been axed whilst The Bill, a primetime fixture for more than twenty years, will soon be cut from two episodes a week to one. ITV had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication." All this comes on the same day that Broadcast have announced that Five are to shed a third of its workforce.

In other TV news, ITV have just announced that News At Ten is going Monday-Friday from next month instead of the current Monday-Thursday.

Dale Winton has,reportedly, been given a seven hundred and fifty grand contract by the BBC for two years to host In It To Win It and a new lottery format We Know Where You Live.

The Sun are reporting the worst-kept news in the broadcasting industry, that ITV have axed Demons after Philip Glenister quit. Because it was shit and no one was watching it, basically.

Meanwhile, the BBC are alleged to be bringing back sequels two of their great drama successes of the last couple of years, Five Days/Hunter and Criminal Justice.

And, switching media, Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon will share hosting duties of the long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue this summer. The new series will be broadcast in June and will be the first outing of the show since host Humphrey Lyttelton died in June last year, aged eighty six due to surgery complications.