Media: All about ... TV sales houses

Merger talk over TV ad sales houses is at fever pitch, Alasdair Reid writes.

"If I were a betting man," one senior media agency source last week confessed, "I wouldn't mind taking a punt on 'Millie' putting the band back together again."

A week or two ago, we'd have smiled glassily and edged away, confident in the expectation that the men in white coats would soon arrive to take him away. Though not before persuading him that, actually, he was a betting man and taking him up on his mad wager.

But these days, a week is a very long time in the television industry. Last Thursday, all the talk was of a possible merger between Channel 4's sales operation and Sky Media. But that expectation changed utterly the next day.

Almost everyone is agreed that some consolidation is inevitable in the airtime sales market, especially if Contract Rights Renewal (CRR - market restrictions imposed on ITV when it became one sales point in 2003) rules are relaxed.

Granted, the news last Friday was inconclusive, with the Office of Fair Trading recommending that CRR should stay, albeit in slightly amended form. More importantly, though, was the revelation earlier in the morning that BSkyB was in pole position to buy Virgin Media Television, the owner not just of a clutch of digital television channels, including the Bravo and Living brands, but also of the sales house ids.

Which just happens to touch on the most improbable part of the "Millie" proposition. Because "Millie" is, of course, Sky Media's managing director, Nick Milligan, and the "band" in question is the old Thames Television sales operation he headed as it morphed into UK Gold.

When Milligan left for Five, he took Mark White and Kelly Williams with him. When he came to his current position as managing director of Sky Media, White and Williams stayed on at Five (they're still there) - and meanwhile the Thames diaspora had broadened, with another old lag, Nick Bampton, fetching up at the sales operation now known as Viacom Brand Solutions.

Putting Millie's band back together would thus pull together Sky, Five and VBS plus the sales house that currently sells UK Gold (along with the burgeoning family of UKTV channels), ids.

Some observers still maintain it's a crazy proposition, involving too many political and personality hurdles to be taken in one jump. Still, it's just as crazy as the notion that Sky Media could merge with the Channel 4 sales team. After all, Milligan represents the bigger (and more solvent) organisation, so would demand to be boss. Whereas Andy Barnes, Channel 4's sales director, would bring more revenue to the party so he would, quite naturally, also demand to be boss.

1. ITV's advertising sales operation is headed by the sales director, Gary Digby. It sells the flagship ITV1 channel (which is covered by CRR) as well as ITV's digital channels (which aren't).

In 2008, it accounted for about £1.5 billion, which equates to 45 per cent of the marketplace - though that share could decline this year.

2. Channel 4's sales operation won its independence in 1993 (it was previously sold by ITV sales operations, which guaranteed its revenues should they fall below 14 per cent of the total television market).

It has consistently punched well above that - in 2008, for instance, it took a market share of about 24 per cent, though this is not deemed enough to fund its remit. The sales chief is Andy Barnes.

3. Sky Media, headed by Nick Milligan, sells Sky's wholly owned channels plus those of a number of other media owners, including Discovery Networks and National Geographic.

It accounts for just over 10 per cent of the market. Meanwhile Five, whose sales director is Williams, takes about 8 per cent (just less than £300 million in 2008). VBS, which took more than £60 million in 2008, sells the MTV family of channels as well as other Viacom properties such as the Paramount and Nickelodeon channels. Its MD is Nick Bampton.

4. But the most intriguing piece of this potential merger jigsaw puzzle is ids, which sells ads for the UKTV channels as well as VMTV.

There's still continuing speculation that Channel 4 may be merged with BBC Worldwide, which owns UKTV in a joint venture with Virgin Media - which could lead to an ids-Channel 4 sales merger too, adding new levels of complexity to the possible permutations.

In 2008, ids took about £200 million. Its managing director is James Wildman.



- By and large, advertisers have tended to support the continued rigorous application of CRR as it has always existed - and dislike any idea of sales house mergers. Interestingly, though, there are one or two forward-looking advertisers (those who realise they have to develop marketing communications partnerships with media owners rather than just buying spots) who have begun to admit that the current situation is untenable.

- They are beginning to concede that CRR has failed. It was designed to keep ITV's share within bounds but all it has succeeded in doing is to reduce prices right across the market.

- Which is good for advertisers in the short term but disastrous for television as an advertising medium in the long term. So they may accept a consolidation process that would create a real competitor to ITV while stopping short of equalling it in terms of market share.

- As Chris Hayward, the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, puts it: "During my professional lifetime, the television marketplace was predicated on unfettered growth. There's now a realisation that we have reached a landmark point."


- They, too, are bracing themselves for a period of great upheaval. They would like to see the big decisions taken sooner rather than later - but concede that nothing much can be set in stone until the fate of Channel 4 has been determined.

- The biggest worry for all concerned is the possibility that the uncertainty, including the CRR review now moving into the orbit of the Competition Commission, will drift on into the yearly negotiation season, which begins to gear up in the autumn.