Media Forum: Is ad minutes plan sensible?

Does Lords committee's airtime proposals make sense?

We all love a committee. The committee is, after all, one of Western civilisation's most enduring social structures, allowing all sorts of self-important people to indulge their self-importance, while vouch-safing, for instance, the parking arrangements at golf clubs, the catering at county shows and the remuneration arrangements of the directors of our larger companies.

Quite rightly, the most celebrated of Britain's committees are those hosted by the House of Lords, which afford comfortable but relatively harmless ways for our elders and betters to while away otherwise vacant afternoons - harmless because what they deliberate is largely detached from the real business of legislation.

Or so we thought. Last week, the media marketplace went into a tailspin when it started to suspect that a statement from one such body - the House of Lords Communications Committee - could actually turn out to be a stalking horse for real change. It suggested, for instance, that it might be quite a nice idea if Contact Rights Renewal was to be done away with - though it concluded modestly that this might require primary legislation. There would be no such nicety required, though, when it comes to its other big idea - the "harmonisation" of airtime minutage across the commercial broadcast market, to ensure a level playing field as analogue switch-off looms.

Currently, while "heritage" terrestrial stations such as ITV1 are allowed no more than an average of seven minutes per hour, broadcasters across the rest of the market can go right up to the European Union-permitted ceiling of 12 minutes. The proposal is to peg everyone back to seven minutes. As the official media notice puts it: "It is the committee's view that a reduction in the quantity of advertising airtime ... would greatly improve the viewer experience and would be fairer to ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5, which are limited more than all other commercial channels at the moment."

One Westminster conspiracy theory is that the Lords were put up to this by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt - and he will seize on it as a means of putting up a quid pro quo for letting News Corp's acquisition of BSkyB go through.

Bob Wootton, ISBA's director of media and advertising, wishes he could believe the proposals had been properly thought through. He reckons, though, that it would inevitably create inflationary pressures, particularly for those advertisers that rely on TV as the cornerstone of their marketing strategies.

He explains: "I think it's clear that it will cost everyone something. The legacy terrestrial stations (ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) will be affected least but it will affect the others heavily. In that respect, this is so not Big Society - because you will be clobbering the weak to advantage the strong."

Nick Milligan, Sky Media's managing director, says advertisers will be justified in feeling annoyance if regulatory-inspired inflation is seemingly being generated to help the public-service broadcasters meet their commitments. But, he adds, the market has already moved on: "Sky Media sells 95 channels and averages seven minutes of advertising an hour, not nine, because of live sport and news editorial - and we carry no commercials in the middle of our movies."

And Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of MPG Media Contacts, reckons it's absurd to believe that this will reduce clutter. "Many commercial channels show imported shows, which commonly offer 43 minutes of programme content in an hour," he points out. "The rest of the hour is made up of advertising and promos. If you cut the advertising, broadcasters will merely be forced to make up the difference with promos. I'm not convinced that will benefit the viewer. That tends to make you suspect that these proposals were devised by people who have no concept of the way that television is bought, sold or watched. It would be a set-back for commercial television at a time when everyone is falling back in love with it."

Meanwhile, Nick Theakstone, the chief executive of Group M, points out that, depending on an advertiser's objectives, planning TV becomes a complicated balancing act between environment, cost and coverage. He concludes: "Inflation brought on by the loss of minutes will therefore disproportionately affect some stations more than others. DRTV could also suffer as I imagine channels set to lose minutes will look to do as much (inventory management) in daytime as possible. So, not a lot of upsides other than the advantage ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 will gain."

NO - BOB WOOTTON, media and advertising director, ISBA

"It is not always possible to predict ... but the likelihood is that it would produce inflation. You could argue that it would cost everyone something - (most) broadcasters, advertisers and viewers."

NO - NICK MILLIGAN, managing director, Sky Media

"Advertisers will be rightly annoyed by regulatory cost inflation bailing out the public-service broadcasters. And ITV, C4 and C5 are all seeing welcome growth from their digital channels, so why would they want to sell fewer minutes in them?"

NO - MARC MENDOZA, chief executive, MPG Media Contacts

"For advertisers, all it will do is damage the position of a medium that is only just becoming re-emergent - but within that, it will enhance the dominant position of ITV (as a family of channels)."

NO - NICK THEAKSTONE, chief executive, Group M

"I think it would unbalance the broadcast ecosystem. It would radically affect all those channels set to lose advertising minutes and will undoubtedly change the way we plan and buy TV. I can't see many upsides."