MEDIA: Perspective - Can a stronger ITV be trusted never to exploit its power?

Major change can be unnerving. Speaking as someone who had a mild panic attack at the weekend on finding that I'm a Celebrity ... had replaced Midsomer Murders in the schedule, I could understand the fears of many surrounding the ITV merger.

But last Monday saw the first official day of the merged ITV, which controls more than 90 per cent of the output on the ITV Network, pass with barely a whimper.

Given the howls of anguish from some quarters last year when Carlton and Granada's plans became clear, you'd have thought that the ITV companies were plotting to create an army of mutants to take over the world.

In addition to winning the nod for a single sales operation controlling around 52 per cent TV ad revenue (creating genuine distrust at a potential sales monopoly), there was also emotional opposition to a stronger ITV.

Most agencies seemed to cast themselves as tooled-up hobbits taking on the imagined sweaty, greedy and rapacious Orc ranks of the ITV sales force on behalf of the beatific group of the UK's advertisers.

Calming words since from ITV sales chiefs, not to mention the soothing balm of the Contract Rights Renewal remedy, have healed many wounds. The majority of well-run agencies were more than willing to roll their ITV deals for a year or two given that many had reduced their spend levels as ITV's performance had wobbled.

And ITV plc's launch had the benefit of timing. Last week's anguish at the BBC, along with the announcement of record peaktime audience figures for ITV1 (its 36.2 per cent peaktime share for last week was the highest since December 2001), created the impression of an ITV that would hit the ground running against its main terrestrial rival.

But I can't stop worrying. While I too like the idea of a stronger ITV (and its initial value of £5.8 billion is twice the combined value of Carlton and Granada when the merger plans were first announced), how long before it begins to exploit this position of strength?

Agencies are worried that after a first year of choir-boy behaviour it will start to give advertisers a kicking next year as a greater number of deals are renegotiated. And so far there is little evidence of a freshening of programming. Nigel Pickard, ITV's director of programmes, credited solid old achievers such as Emmerdale, Coronation Street, The Bill and Fat Friends for its audience revival.

Most worrying of all is ITV's prevarication over appointing a chairman.

This and continued shareholder distrust of the chief executive, Charles Allen, does not bode well for a company that's supposed to have shed the skin of "old ITV". It's still got a lot to do to banish the doubts completely.

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