MEDIA SPOTLIGHT ON: AIRTIME SELLING - Should ITV be wary of the OFT probe into its sales practice? Alasdair Reid looks at the ramifications of the OFT’s interest in ITV’s operation

There’s nothing like the imminent threat of an Office of Fair Trading inquiry to inspire a closing of the ranks. Campaign’s front page lead - ’ITV to investigate ITV sales practices’ (20 March) - prompted a steady stream of ’more in sadness than in anger’ calls, many of which described the story as ’mischief-making’.

There’s nothing like the imminent threat of an Office of Fair

Trading inquiry to inspire a closing of the ranks. Campaign’s front page

lead - ’ITV to investigate ITV sales practices’ (20 March) - prompted a

steady stream of ’more in sadness than in anger’ calls, many of which

described the story as ’mischief-making’.



And the fascinating thing was that, although many of these calls came

from the upper echelons of the ITV system, surprisingly similar messages

were also coming from other sectors of the industry.



The OFT, they insisted, was no longer interested in ITV sales practices

- and, even if it was, this was merely a bureaucratic form-ality; a

response to a submission from Laser Sales last autumn.



Yes, the OFT had written to the Institute of Practitioners in

Advertising asking about ’share of broadcast’ deals and the possibility

that sales houses had been acting in concert. The IPA replied, saying it

had encountered no problems with ITV sales houses trading on share of

broadcast. And that, for the IPA, was the end of the affair. On Friday

it issued a statement from Ray Kelly, chairman of the IPA media policy

group, which read: ’We received assurance from the ITV sales houses last

December and consider the issue satisfactorily closed.’



It isn’t, unfortunately. The due processes of the OFT are in motion -

and there are indications that the scope of the OFT inquiry will be far

wider than initially believed. The whole airtime trading system could be

about to come under extremely detailed scrutiny.



Last week, OFT sources seemed to be implying that it had been in contact

with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and also that it

had recently written a second time to the IPA.



The OFT says its inquiries are still at the preliminary stage and that

’no decisions have been reached as yet.’.



Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media and advertising affairs, says he

is unaware of any official OFT approach. He states: ’I’d be surprised if

anyone were to say definitely that there are no trading issues of

concern.



What I can say is that the whole issue of restrictive practices is

something that continues to smoulder. I have not made any consultations

among the membership recently but that might change if I were asked - or

if new evidence came to light. If you are asking about share of

broadcast deals, the difference between it being an issue and not being

one is currently a very fine line indeed.’



Individual IPA members are keen to stop the boat being rocked,

especially by Campaign. But they’re also understandably jumpy. Top of

the conspiracy theory chart last week was that a group of individual

advertisers is continuing to pursue a private vendetta against ITV -

airtime inflation and ITV’s refusal to contemplate extra minutage are

still issues that rankle.



Could that be true? John Blakemore, the advertising director of

SmithKline Beecham, is sceptical. ’If there has been collusion between

ITV sales points, I’ve certainly had no direct experience of it. Nor

have I ever met or spoken to anyone who has,’ he states.



Still, some sectors of the industry seem unsatisfied with the

situation.



’We have been hearing that an advertiser or advertisers are behind this

and that they have been feeding very detailed information to the OFT,’

one senior media specialist source said. ’From what I have heard, the

OFT is incredibly well informed. We want to know why the OFT should

still be looking at this five months after it received the first

submission from Laser. The truth is that we don’t need this. I fail to

see what an advertiser might stand to gain in the long run. We want to

know what is really happening.’