Media Forum: Will public service changes benefit ITV?

Commercial TV is to get more leeway with its public service obligations. Good news for advertisers, Alasdair Reid asks. Broadcasters tend to come over all funny when they start talking about public service broadcasting. That goes for regulators too. Actually, come to think of it, it applies especially to regulators. After all, without a notion of public standards, they wouldn't even exist.

So it's hardly surprising to find Ofcom, still in the sparkling freshness of its infancy, attempting not only to come up with a very 21st-century definition of public service but also trying to outline ways of guaranteeing its future.

Who can envy it in this task? After all, as the BBC has been showing us for upwards of a decade, you can redefine just about anything as public service broadcasting. Take EastEnders. Because, you know, EastEnders is, in a very real sense, a programme exploring important social issues.

Ofcom's document recommends that in order to save the public service phenomenon, some of it should be axed completely, particularly in the commercial sector. In particular, ITV and five will in the future be excused some of their current obligations to the arts and religious programming. Viewers, according to Ofcom's research, would give a far higher priority to saving the likes of children's programming and news.

Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, says he welcomes the findings of this first part of the Ofcom review. It recognises the continuing contribution ITV1 makes to the whole cause of public service broadcasting, particularly through the network's investment in news in particular and original UK programme production in general. He adds: "Importantly, the report also highlights that viewers take a broad view of what public service broadcasting is. For viewers, soaps and sport have as much of a role to play as the more traditional public service genres such as arts and religion."

Desmond says he now looks forward to working with Ofcom in the next phase of its review to identify the ways that ITV may best sustain ITV1's public service commitment. And there's an interesting quid pro quo on offer here.

Allowing ITV1 a little bit more leeway (with all the revenue implications this assumes) will mean the company will be better placed to fulfil other aspects of its public duty - such as ensuring a smooth move towards analogue switch-off.

We often forget that, because of its franchise obligations, ITV1 is in theory just as much of a public service broadcaster as the BBC is. And we can be excused for this forgetfulness.

For instance (and not a lot of people know this, given we're talking about first thing on a Sunday), ITV's recent religious output has included, wait for it, The Opera Babes in Jerusalem.

Which begs the question: how much of a difference will this actually make in the greater scheme of things? Maybe not much, Chris Hayward, the head of TV at ZenithOptimedia, says: "Most broadcasters stretch the definition of public service broadcasting to the limits to get as much entertainment into the schedule as they can."

On the other hand, any legislation that makes the whole business more transparent has to be welcomed, he believes. And some programme strands are no longer sacrosanct. "For instance, in all that fuss (a couple of years ago) about whether ITV should be allowed to move News at Ten, the only people who were really engaged in the debate were politicians. No-one else cared," he points out.

"I think everything that allows ITV to pursue commercial revenues in a legitimate way should be welcomed. To me, this is Ofcom embracing more common sense."

Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna Global UK, says there is no longer a moral dimension to this question - just about every programming strand is well catered for elsewhere. But can ITV actually do something interesting in the off-peak, obscure areas of the schedule that will be freed up?

Perry is somewhat sceptical. "It's hard to do anything imaginative with the Sunday morning slot and it's even harder to do something consistently interesting," he states.

Andy Bolden, the advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, says that before multichannel television, advertisers found it reassuring that ITV delivered specialist niche audiences. As the market is these days, though, he can't see it losing anything because of this latest Ofcom deliberation.

Does he think, though, on the other side of the coin, that if ITV runs more populist programming in arts and religion slots, there could be a ratings windfall for advertisers? Not exactly a windfall, he reckons.

"But it's true that any bit of flexibility you can find in any business proposition the better," he concludes.

- "Ofcom has rightly identified the massive economic changes taking place in the broadcasting industry and the need for ITV1, in particular, to be able to play to its public broadcasting strengths if its contribution is to be sustained in the run-up to digital switchover." - Mick Desmond chief executive, ITV Broadcasting

- "Any legislation that makes the whole thing more transparent is welcome. Everyone has to recognise that commercial broadcasters are in business to maximise revenue and also, perhaps, that concerns about public service broadcasting can be overdone." - Chris Hayward head of TV, ZenithOptimedia

- "ITV arts programmes such as The South Bank Show did have their day but, in truth, the reason we use ITV and the reason that it can command a premium is its mass-audience delivery. If we want small but attractive audience groups, we can find them elsewhere." - Mick Perry chairman, Magna Global UK

- "Never in all my days in the business have I heard of a schedule that targeted people in a religious environment. More generally, advertisers are now well catered for across almost every conceivable type of taste, via specialist channels." - Andy Bolden advertising director, GlaxoSmithKline.

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