MEDIA: BEHIND THE HYPE - Will ISBA regret its volte-face over the ITV merger?

Now the ITV merger is fact, ISBA has to make it work for advertisers.

After the pin-drop silence that followed Patricia Hewitt's ITV announcement last week, outcry might have been an understandable response.

The greenlighting of the Carlton/Granada merger, with confusing and nebulous stipulations, was surely advertisers' worst-case scenario.

Not only have the two broadcasting monoliths been allowed to create a monster monopoly but, in the delicate area of advertising airtime, a single sales player will now pocket more than 50 per cent of all UK TV ad revenue. Haven't Carlton and Granada been wholly satisfied while the advertising community has been soundly screwed?

Not according to ISBA's official statement on the decision. As the representative body for UK advertisers, ISBA "welcomed" the news, was "particularly pleased" with aspects of the ruling, and is now "extremely keen" to work with the authorities on the detail of the new arrangements.

Could this be the same ISBA that has spent an estimated £400,000 lobbying against ITV sales concentration, that has persistently called for "double divestment" into two independent ITV sales houses, and that has unequivocally "strongly opposed" any merger of Carlton and Granada's commercial activities?

The "over-my-dead-body" stand against an ITV monopoly seemed all but forgotten as Malcolm Earnshaw, ISBA's director-general, added: "We welcome the fact that the Competition Commission and secretary of state have so clearly focused on the views of advertisers."

ISBA has sought to defend advertisers' interests at every turn, though acknowledging the need for a strong ITV able to invest in the right schedule to maximise audiences. How can the new ruling justify such a pussy-cat response?

Some observers have suggested that ISBA has taken a pragmatic and long-term view and decided to work with the current ruling rather than play the awkward protagonist ahead of much bigger battles. There are potentially more serious regulatory threats to advertisers on the table and any curbs on advertising to children or alcohol advertising all have immeasurably more crippling long-term implications than a single ITV. Better to keep the tinder dry and not ruffle too many governmental feathers over ITV, then?

No doubt such thoughts have crossed the minds of many of the bigger advertisers.

But ISBA genuinely wants a strong ITV. It seems convinced that there are workable checks and balances being proposed as a commercial cushion to the merger.

The whole issue of contract rights renewal (whereby advertisers can roll over their existing ITV deals for at least the next three years and so not be held to ransom by a newly monopolistic ITV) has been made more palatable to ISBA by the addition of an independent adjudicator and the prospect of a government watchdog that understands ISBA's concerns. And ISBA is very clear that there is still much work to be done on clarifying and refining the detail and it is withholding full support for Hewitt's decision until the minutiae have been sorted. So ISBA's seemingly contradictory response is not quite the volte face it might appear.

Nevertheless, ISBA might yet rue its surprising arms-open welcome of the ruling. As work begins on identifying the loopholes in the so-called "behavioural remedies" designed to create a level commercial playing field, this is sure to be a lengthy, costly and tiring process. And defending the nitty-gritty of advertiser concerns now that the merger has life and momentum could prove to be rather too much like whistling in the wind for the ISBA team.

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