Call me extra-sensory or what, but I detect the beginnings of a pre-
emptive campaign among agencies and advertisers to raise a series of
legal and/or regulatory hurdles in the event of a possible bid by
Carlton for MAI/United.
But since nobody, bar Carlton’s boss, Michael Green, and a few others,
even know whether he is going to bid, we are obviously talking about
pre-emptive action of the most, well, pre-emptive and hypothetical kind.
But this much is known. On news of the MAI/United deal, Green comes
rushing back from his hols. Ergo, the speculators say, he’s all wound up
about it and could be, even as we speak, preparing to strike.
Meanwhile, at about the same time in another part of Planet Media
(Belgravia, actually), Virginia Bottomley of the Department of National
Heritage, is wined and lunched by the Institute of Practitioners in
Advertising. Pressed on the sanctity of the 25 per cent limit on total
TV sales, Mrs B agrees with the assembled crowd of media buyer big-wigs
that this is generally a desirable state of affairs (ie not to be messed
about with as it would in the event of a Carlton bid). Sadly, though,
this is not her area, but a matter for the Department of Trade and
Industry, which has responsibility for competition policy. So off go
letters and demands for meetings to make this view clear, with the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers singing from the same hymn
sheet for good measure.
Now it is certainly true that there is a major groundswell against any
Carlton bid for MAI. The big media buyers, not to mention advertisers
like Procter and Gamble and Mars, are very, very nervous indeed. Just
like Harry Enfield in the Hula Hoops ads, they are saying: ‘Oi, Green.
No!’ But are they right to be?
The problem is that the new Broadcasting Bill focuses on share of
audience - and limits that to 15 per cent, but ignores TV revenue. A
Carlton/MAI deal would fall within the audience limit but give it nearly
40 per cent of TV revenue. Changing the bill now is, I’m told, regarded
as a non-starter, hence the move to head off the DTI via the Office of
Fair Trading. But the DTI sees its role as championing British media
companies by allowing them a powerful home base from which to take on
the world. In the DTI’s context, the current 25 per cent ceiling on TV
revenue, although it still stands, might be viewed as an irrelevance.
Not by MAI though, which sees it as a useful defence against Carlton,
and is thus a discreet member of the 25 per cent lobby.
But, on the other hand, is there a sensible long-term future for a
federal ITV? Wouldn’t ITV be more effective (for advertisers as well as,
granted, the shareholders) run by just one or two companies? If that is
the case, and there are few who would dispute that this is the
direction we’re going in, then it might make sense to start now. Either
way, this issue demonstrates we’re still miles off getting a sensible