MEDIA SPOTLIGHT: Confusion as TV airtime market faces new review

Media industry observers doubt the need for yet more inquiry, Alasdair Reid finds.

As one investigation into the workings of the UK's television airtime market comes to a close, another prepares to open up shop. If we don't watch out, such investigations will eventually turn into the media industry's pre-eminent growth sector.

You've got to admire the way in which the baton was passed. Having just given the green light to the full-blooded version of the Carlton-Granada merger, the Competition Commission recommended that the Independent Television Commission/Ofcom "should consider a review of the overall UK television advertising market in due course".

Ofcom, led by its chief executive, Stephen Carter, is absolutely going to leap at this one. For some reason, the UK airtime market seems to exercise an irresistible fascination.

It's true, though, that the UK system is as exotic as it is unique. At first sight, buying television airtime looks like a form of futures trading - except that (and this really mystifies many outside observers) there's a comprehensive safety net against risk, a net that's effectively maintained by everyone trading in the market. Business is conducted against a notion of average market prices, not against any absolute notion of upfront value. No-one ever gambles the house and loses.

And then there's the fact that it's a meta-market, a market at one remove - the commodity that's ostensibly being traded (spots in commercial breaks) is actually a complete red herring. The real commodity is audience.

Nor are we talking about total audience numbers. We're talking audience as divided up into more than a hundred demographic groups, the majority of which will be of no interest whatsoever for any given advertiser in any given spot.

Which in turn means that broadcasters can never effectively sell all of the audience inventory its breaks generate. To take a crude example - tampon ads are seen by loads of men, but that section of the audience is valueless to tampon advertisers. This is often the bit that regulators (especially economists used to simpler notions of saleable inventory) find hardest to understand - and one of the reasons they keep coming back and asking for it all to be explained again.

And then there are the practices they suspect are thoroughly disreputable, if not downright illegal. These include, on the agency side, agency deals (where the buyer pools all of the budgets of all its clients to get extra discount) and on the media owner side, conditional selling. Should ITV, for instance, give better deals to clients on the condition they also use ITV2? That sort of cross-selling happens right across the media marketplace, obviously, but other media aren't beholden to the sorts of regulators that commercial broadcasters are - and the new investigation will almost certainly look at trading across all other stations, particularly Channel 4 and five.

So what will the main issues be in this next inquiry? And who has the most to fear?

Not media agencies, one source who's been in regular contact with the Competition Commission during the past few weeks says. But you can see how he might have driven them to distraction when he adds: "There's no point in them trying to dig up any more stuff about the current system - that stuff already has or should have been dug up anyway, not that there is anything to dig up in that respect, in the first place. They should wait until the market has evolved under the new conditions."

Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA media futures group, believes that the regulators basically think they want to get to the bottom of two central issues - the extent to which the airtime market is (or isn't) transparent; and whether it is (or isn't) "manipulable". He's not optimistic they'll get there, saying: "The problem, broadly, I suppose, is that we have created this mystifying cottage industry. I'm not sure there's any logic to the way we do what we do. The Competition Commission developed a fascination with the way TV is traded without really understanding all of the nuances."

The people who are arguably most clued up about transparency and manipulability are media auditors. Martin Sambrook, the global account director at Media Audits, points out that this isn't exactly rocket science. He states: "Anyone looking at the glaring contradiction between ITV's share of audience and share of revenue would see that an appraisal of the mechanism and the degree of competition it produces would be blindingly obvious. It makes you wonder what the Competition Commission has been doing for the past few months. And if it hasn't done this already, why did it let the deal go through in the first place?"

But Andy Jones, the deputy managing director of Magna Global UK, can't see what the fuss is all about. "I don't think there are any potentially worrying issues on the agency side because there's nothing to hide. The way we trade is all very transparent these days and quite frankly it's trading in a way that suits clients," he says.

Like many in the market, Jones is totally mystified as to why they want to do this follow-on investigation. "Haven't they spent the past six months looking at this? And I can't believe they think there's something worth investigating in the non-ITV part of the market. It works in a similar way to the way it does with ITV."

And many sources point out that almost by definition, any misdemeanours occurring over the coming weeks and months are likely to be ITV misdemeanours.

It is ITV, after all, that has just been given extra leverage.

Nick Theakstone, the head of investment at MindShare, says that the wisest course would be to let the dust settle before even thinking about a new investigation. "I can't see it happening for a considerable time - there are too many other priorities," he says. "I think it is going to be wise to wait until we have had at least a year of contact rights renewal before they look at this again. I'll have to say, though, in the end the Competition Commission struggled to grasp some of the important issues."

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