PERSPECTIVE: Tessa Jowell warms to media but shuns advertiser interests

If you have the stamina for a late-night drinking session with a gaggle of media owners this week, you will find them in good humour.

The same should apply to analysts and bankers as they anticipate a bonanza of booming share valuations and fat fees. For the draft Communications Bill, published this week, liberalises the UK communications market to an unprecedented degree, sets the stage for a mergers and acquisitions frenzy and wraps the media sector up in a new super-regulator, Ofcom, that will be the envy of the world.

So far so good. Actually, I think those media owners, analysts and bankers might have had their brains slightly addled by merger fever. In focusing on issues of media ownership, the Government has largely ignored two important constituencies: advertisers and agencies. The word advertising was barely mentioned in her speech as Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, unveiled the Government's plans for a TV free-for-all. (Correction: agencies did get one mention; they can now own broadcasting licences, an intriguing prospect given they have about as much expertise in running TV companies as Enron does in setting out fair accounting procedures.)

Some of the announcements were long expected. In television, the decision to revoke the ban on joint ownership of both London franchises and the 15 per cent audience limit paves the way, subject to competition law, for a single ITV.

Lifting the ban on owning more than one radio station will, in theory, allow a single owner for Classic, Virgin 125 and talkSPORT with the plurality issue covered by the mix of one pop, one non-pop and one speech station.

As the newspaper groups have argued, newspaper mergers will be treated just like any other mergers where before they needed government consent.

Other aspects of the bill are surprising. The removal of the restriction on common ownership of Channel 3 and Channel 5, for one. Lorna Tilbian of Numis points out that, as a result, RTL is well placed to bid for either Carlton or Granada. Previously one of several reasons why RTL held back was its unwillingness to sell its 65 per cent of Channel 5; now it can keep that stake and, if it chooses, reconsider a bid for Carlton or Granada.

Despite all these more-liberal-than-expected changes, the overall sense is that the Government does not regard safeguarding advertiser interests as important. A primary concern for advertisers, for example, the proposed sales rules for that single ITV, has been largely ignored.

Anything that puts more money into content is a good thing but there's no guarantee that the likely consolidation of ownership will be redeployed to viewer, listener or reader benefit. It's shareholders who are the obvious winners this week and the overwhelming impression of the Bill is that the Government is not as focused on the needs of advertisers as it could be.

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