Media: All about ... TV market regulation

Liberalisation of airtime trading rules looks on the cards.

One of the more thoughtful national press reviews of this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival accused the event of having succumbed to "silliness" - in that it tends to focus on the shallow frivolity and frothiness of an industry that has always boasted an effortless ability to generate oodles of both. There is, after all, no business like show business.

And indeed it has become easy to dismiss, from a more prosaic business point of view, an event that features a plethora of self-congratulatory master-classes on various programme genres, with a usually rather unsophisticated and selfserving keynote speech attached.

Especially as the whole circus seems designed to reflect, and indeed, this year, the proposition was overtly stated here and there, the shamefully complacent assumption that British broadcasting is the very best in the world.

So, in that context, it arguably doesn't really matter that the structural concerns of the commercial broadcast industry were largely absent or ignored.

But the festival is the closest thing we have to an industry summit - and it's sobering to hear the worries of ad-funded broadcasters addressed so briefly by the event's keynote speaker, the BBC director-general, Mark Thompson.

The commercial sector's financial worries might be alleviated, he suggested, if BSkyB were to be persuaded to pay for the privilege of carrying the likes of ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 on its digital satellite TV platform. This, Thompson added, in what amounted to a patronising pat on the commercial sector's cute little head, might generate as much as £75 million a year.

Strangely, it was left to a politician, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to provide an antidote to some of Thompson's more obvious aspirations towards silliness.

Thompson had clearly come to Edinburgh with the notion that, rather than addressing mounting concerns about the continuing role and cost of the BBC itself, he might succeed in distracting everyone's attention from this hot topic by launching into a less than flattering critique of BSkyB in particular, and the Murdoch family's broader media empire in general.

Hunt, in a question-and-answer session, admitted that there were parts of Thompson's broadside that he didn't quite "buy". And, in what may amount to the most important snippet to emerge from the whole event, he revealed that he was not to be deflected from a desire to extract better value from the corporation - including, if needs be, cuts in the licence-fee provision. That in itself may add up to rather decent news for the commercial sector.

1. Hunt also repeated his longheld belief that it would be desirable to remove the Contract Rights Renewal rules that restrict ITV's ability to maximise the price of its airtime - though he admitted that the Competition Commission takes a wholly opposed view.

He added that the Government would like to see a wide-ranging investigation into all aspects of trading in the UK's television airtime market.

2. But liberalisation continues to be an issue fraught with difficulties. In its most recent pronouncement on trading issues, back in July, Ofcom appeared to rule out a wide-ranging inquiry into market practices - but the regulator introduced new rules legitimising conditional selling by sales houses across the bundles of channels they represent; and broadcasters are no longer compelled to sell all their inventory.

3. Back in February, the Labour government announced that it was minded to relax rules banning overt product placement in commercial TV programmes. The current government has yet to rubber stamp those concessions.

4. So, while these regulatory issues continue to bubble under, the defining factors in the post-Edinburgh commercial television world, as it gears up for the annual airtime deal-making season, will be about revenue growth prospects and also about the impact of this year's sales-side consolidations. Sky Media, for instance, now represents Viacom's channels; while Channel 4 has absorbed UKTV's sales.

5. And the biggest question of all will be whether Richard Desmond's acquisition of Channel 5 will lead to a change in the way that its airtime is sold - and whether such changes will save it from the sorts of difficult negotiations that lone stragglers can expect in any consolidating market.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

COMMERCIAL BROADCASTERS

- There seemed to be a surreal assumption in some quarters at Edinburgh that commercial broadcasting is now pretty much out of the woods.

- Worse, there were those who seemed to believe that a year ago the commercial sector had somehow been "crying wolf" - look now, they seemed to be saying: ITV has shiny new management, Channel 5 has new owners and even Channel 4 has reasons to be cheerful.

- Meanwhile, the reality - that the commercial sector remains somewhat in limbo, with uncertain revenue growth prospects and an even more uncertain regulatory outlook - is easily glossed over by the BBC and its fellow travellers.

- If there's a lesson to be learned from this latest Edinburgh shindig, it's perhaps that commercial broadcasting is woefully poor at making itself heard.

- The sector should aspire to a greater show of leadership at such events - and, by extension, in the wider business and political world.

ADVERTISERS

- In some respects, advertisers have never had it so good. The BBC is slowly being stuffed back into its public-service box, which bodes well (at least in theory) for prospects in the commercial sector. Meanwhile, however, commercial television is delivering big audiences at bargain basement prices - and recent Ofcom tinkering won't change that.

- There was even talk at Edinburgh about advertisers using their strong bargaining position (and commercial broadcasting's potential funding gap) to dictate terms as ad-funded programming and product placement comes on stream.

- But advertisers, too, should be wary of assuming it's in their interests to see the concerns of commercial broadcasters marginalised.

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