MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Merger terms must not restrict TV as a rich creative sector

While the rest of us stare on in bemused confusion at the foggy descent of the ITV merger into high farce, Carlton and Granada are presumably feeling a little more relaxed. There's no doubt now that the Competition Commission would dearly love to sanction the merger and is giving ITV more fingers-crossed chances to get it right than Tim Henman at Wimbledon.

Last week, the Commission gave ITV yet another bob at the apple barrel and is considering two new proposals designed to find a broadly acceptable (but near incomprehensible) solution to the airtime sales monopoly the merger will create. Advertisers and agencies that have been heatedly opposed to the merger must be gnashing their teeth as the Commission appears prepared to bend every which way to allow a single ITV to slip in.

The first proposal under consideration is a ludicrous plan to auction off a portion of ITV's airtime to a third party. Which bits, how much, to whom and how this could avoid the pitfalls of broking remain unclear.

But heck, the Commission has extended its investigation by two months to consider it.

The second proposal at first seems more valid: advertisers and agencies would be able to carry over the deals they have already negotiated in the world of two ITV companies into the era of a single ITV.

So the biggest, most powerful advertisers with their own ITV deals would be protected for a while. As would agency deals. But what of those (few) agencies that never do agency deals? They would hardly prove an attractive, cost-effective option in a new-business pitch. And new TV advertisers would either have to be shoe-horned into an existing agency deal or hung out to dry.

And how long will it really be before a single ITV drags advertisers, kicking and screaming, to the renegotiation table? Mutterings already from the ITV sales side suggest that, where some advertiser and agency deals are concerned, they will be agitating sooner rather than later to redraw terms.

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this favoured proposal is the message that it sends out about the nature of TV advertising. By rolling over existing deals relating to shares, discounts and standard terms and conditions, the proposals reduce TV to a commodity buy just when the creative commercial opportunities of TV are really soaring. Interactivity, sponsorship, advertiser-funded programming and off-air marketing partnerships are changing TV from a bald 30-second medium into a rich, dynamic commercial experience. To framework that with rigid deals that bind advertisers and agencies into the rut of previous activity would be criminal.

And one final thought on why the new proposals must be treated with real caution. With rollovers, our restaurants, golf courses and sporting events will be even more over-run by TV sales people with even less to do.