OPINION: PERSPECTIVE - Trading concerns swept aside as ITV duo marries

Manchester United's celebrity shareholders' roster kept the Competition Commission report on the Carlton and Granada merger off the top of the business bulletins on Tuesday morning. But by lunchtime there was no debate as to which was the more important story.

The £4 billion-plus marriage of two companies that have been artificially separated for decades marks a change as seismic and controversial as anything that has happened since commercial television started in the UK in 1956, with 14 contractors responsible for sales on the ITV network.

At 290 pages, the report certainly wasn't short, but it would have been longer had so much supposedly sensitive information not ended up on the cutting-room floor.

The Daily Telegraph hilariously quoted one such paragraph: "The parties put it to us that without the merger, and with ITV continuing to lose share, at some point in their future their broadcasting businesses () unless they made substantial savings. They estimated this point would come at around (). Therefore ITV would have to consider ()."

Consider what? Merging with the BBC? We'll probably never know what those veiled threats were but they certainly worked. Michael Green of Carlton and Charles Allen of Granada have got more or less what they wanted. The merger cleared despite the howls of protest from advertisers who want as large a market for commercial television as possible. And no demand that they divest their advertising sales houses. (Volte-face award of 2003: ISBA spent a small fortune lobbying against the merger, only to welcome it as a victory for its members this week.)

Another reason the threats worked is because the ITV companies have rarely been out of the Competition Commission for months. Parallels with pitches spring to mind here: those murky ones when one agency is allowed repeated meetings, briefings and so on, putting them at a huge advantage. The Government has thrown its weight behind a single ITV and has already discussed the trading issues with Carlton and Granada, putting them clear ahead of agencies, clients and rival broadcasters alike.

For those parties, now bedevilled in the fine details of this week's announcement, the great disappointment is that the trading conditions set forth are behavioural, rather than structural. There is reference to the Independent Television Commission and/or Ofcom adjudicating between agencies and ITV; however, their power will be limited.

On a lighter note, there is great fun to be had in speculating on the candidates for adjudicator. The IPA's Bob Wootton will probably go for it, of course. But you can count on the fingers of a mitten those who can marry the hellish intricacies of TV trading with the skills of an adjudicator. David Connolly, recently released from Starcom, perhaps?

David Cuff, ex of Flextech? Tony Kenyon, ex of CIA? John Billett, but, God, would he ever stop talking?

In the long term, there are some chinks of light for advertisers. If ITV reinvests any savings made from the merger back into the schedule to compete against the BBC, it will lead to an overall share in growth of commercial audiences.

However, one suspects that if the City puts on pressure to cut costs, the easiest casualty will be the schedule.

Finally, through all the trading furore, one truth has to be noted. At long last, ITV has the chance to really sell the television medium for real. Good luck to them.

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