MEDIA: FORUM; Should regional media ownership worry the ITC?

Is concentration of media ownership at a regional level much of an issue? The ITC obviously thinks so - witness its decision last week to take a look at United News and Media. Aside from the fact that its timing could be better, is this really a suitable case for ITC treatment? reports

Is concentration of media ownership at a regional level much of an

issue? The ITC obviously thinks so - witness its decision last week to

take a look at United News and Media. Aside from the fact that its

timing could be better, is this really a suitable case for ITC

treatment? reports



Last week, the Independent Television Commission decided it was high

time to take a look at the activities of United News and Media. Under

the provisions of the last Broadcasting Act, it is the ITC’s job to

monitor potentially dangerous concentrations of media ownership, either

at a national or a regional level.



United News and Media - the giant created when Lord Hollick’s MAI

acquired United Newspapers - has an interesting portfolio in the South-

east of England. MAI brought the Meridian and Anglia franchises to the

party, while the United portfolio included a clutch of newspapers in the

Anglia region. If you factor in the group’s national newspapers - the

Daily Star and the Express stable - then it might seem that the ITC has

a case to pursue.



Shame about the timing. When United sold its Welsh regional newspapers

recently, it indicated that it was going to concentrate its regional

activities in the North of England. Last week, United sources were

letting it be known that the sale of the Anglia region titles was

imminent.



But surely that’s neither here nor there. The whole issue of regional

concentration of media ownership is dead in the water, isn’t it? Last

month, the ITC looked into the acquisition of Caledonian Publishing -

which owns Glasgow’s Herald and Evening Times newspapers - by Scottish

Television. The verdict? The acquisition could not be deemed to be

against the public interest.



As far as this latest regional issue is concerned, the great and the

good at the ITC have invited observations from all interested parties by

13 December. Will there be a great clamour to get to the head of the

queue?



Darren Guy, the director of regional media at Zenith Media, doesn’t

think so. He says that conditional selling - the only real issue at

stake here - is an unlikely outcome. ‘When we use press, we use it for a

reason. When we use TV, we use it for a reason. It doesn’t come down to

coverage - it’s all about environment. We will not change strategy

because we can do deals across two media. I can’t see it, though - the

idea that we might be asked to run a TV ad because we want to use

regional press in a particular area is ridiculous. Let’s face it - in

this case, the Brentwood Yellow Advertiser is poles apart from Anglia

TV,’ he says.



On the other hand, Guy argues, there might be opportunities,

particularly when it comes to the peripheral or value-added areas of a

campaign. ‘There are joint promotions and PR opportunities that can

benefit the media owner as well as the advertiser. Media owners who own

a range of media are often better able to co-ordinate that,’ he adds.



Graham Milne, the managing director of Morgan CIA, says that there have

been few potential problems in Scotland - yet. He’s happy that the

watchdogs are paying attention but he’s not optimistic about their

ability to act. ‘With the STV acquisition of the Caledonian deal, one of

the benefits they talked about was joint selling on a ‘how can we help

you?’ basis. Those sorts of things are fine, provided the talks take

place at a suitably high level and the people dealing day to day don’t

get bogged down by it,’ he states.



‘So far, I don’t think anyone has been too bothered. But what happens if

it goes further? And at what point do we get concerned? There are

permutations involving the Mirror Group - which owns 20 per cent of STV

as well as the biggest-selling newspaper, the Daily Record, up here -

that could be worrying in the future.’



Milne argues that the point about regional advertising is that each

medium you deal with often has a regional monopoly. ‘It’s when all of

those monopolies are held by the one company that the big worries

begin,’ he says. ‘It’s good to know that bodies such as the ITC are

aware of activity at a local level. But when trading problems arise,

we’ll be the people to feel it first, not the ITC. It would then be up

to us to take the appropriate action.’



Chris Stanley, the director of marketing at the Newspaper Society, says

that the ITC is barking up the wrong tree. ‘By and large, regional

newspaper businesses haven’t been making moves into mainstream TV and

the TV big guns don’t have a lot of interest in regional press,’ he

points out.



But he is fundamentally opposed to anything that would stop the regional

press from diversifying: ‘Regional papers have wonderfully strong

franchises on a local basis and it would be a mistake to think that

putting ink on paper was the only way to exploit that franchise. The

vast bulk of their businesses will still be in print, of course, but

they have to look at other avenues and vehicles - things like radio,

niche publications, cable and even the Web. They must be given every

opportunity to exploit their franchises in those ways. In the broad

media landscape it isn’t really an issue whether there is one media

owner in, say, Leicester. Local newspapers are professional operators

and are eminently capable of conducting their business in a way that

will not cause concern to agencies or advertisers.’



Neil Hepburn, an associate media director of BMP DDB, is not so sure. He

says that he’s far more worried about regional newspaper publisher

involvement in radio than in TV. ‘There is a danger of people trying to

close up local markets but the point is that TV and regional press are

sufficiently far apart in the types of advertising they carry - there

isn’t really a problem there. Anyone trying to do a cross-sell would be

extremely foolhardy,’ he insists.



‘This isn’t going to be a problem area - but I think there are big

issues about ownership of regional media. There is the prospect of less

competition between publishing groups at a regional level and perhaps

it’s time to look at the whole sector again. When the Monopolies and

Mergers Commission looks at a deal, in my opinion, it will look at the

percentage of UK market involved rather than the percentage of the

regional market. It should be the other way around.



‘As for the ITC, I can’t see why it’s keen to get involved unless it is

merely trying to send out a message to the market. Maybe it is just

trying to keep everyone on their toes.’



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