A strong ITV will be in a better position to take on BBC

The sighs of relief at Carlton and Granada must soon have been followed by incredulous laughter and the popping of champagne corks, writes Ian Darby.

That their merger would be waved through never looked seriously in doubt but the lack of potentially crippling conditions must have surprised even ITV executives. At one point, the so-called "double divestment", a sell-off of both sales houses, seemed to be the likely condition imposed by the trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt.

Even Granada's chairman, Charles Allen, had admitted that the ITV companies might consider pressing on with the merger without the sales houses in their pockets.

But Hewitt agreed with the Competition Commission recommendation that future competition for the sale of advertising airtime could be preserved by a system of price guarantees for advertising overseen by an independent auditor.

There are undoubted holes in this argument but the biggest problem is that the decision will lead to consolidation of sales points whether ITV rivals want it or not.

Because a merged ITV sales operation has the potential to be so dominant it leaves Channel 4, five, Sky and IDS with little option but to look at pooling resources. A sell-off of one or more ITV sales operation would inevitably have offered more choice for advertisers and given ITV's rivals the option of maintaining their current positions.

And it seems odd that Hewitt's department, so careful and scrupulous over the monopolistic implications of the recent Safeway takeover bids, should be so easily reassured about ITV's hold on the TV advertising market. Cynics would suggest that neither the Competition Commission nor the Department for Trade and Industry fully got to grips with the TV trading market.

They're certainly not alone in this, but is it all gloomy news for TV advertisers? I would say not. I agree with the argument that a strong ITV is good for advertisers and that a merged company will be able to compete more rigorously with the increasingly invasive BBC.

Once Carlton and Granada have merged, the inevitable bidding war will begin. My money's on Viacom but there are at least three or four other likely bidders.

I don't necessarily have an all-conquering fear of an American-owned ITV but Hewitt's decision certainly opens the floodgates for massive changes in UK broadcasting and any bid must be carefully considered.

In the more immediate term, we ITV outsiders can sit back and watch the consolidation, the personalities, the jostling for position and the inevitable job losses that the merger will bring. But the bigger picture surrounding who will be the future owner of ITV should be of more concern to viewers and advertisers.

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