Local fears for new TV watchdog

BECTU has raised concerns about the future of ITV regional programming under new industry regulator Ofcom.

The proposal for a new body to oversee broadcasting, telecommunications, and new media, came in a government White Paper which ruled out privatisation of Channel Four, but paved the way for more takeovers in the ITV network.

A proposal to scrap the rule limiting ITV companies to 15% of the overall audience, together with a relaxation of the 20% ownership limit for shareholders in ITN, could lead to a repeat of the industry shake-up which followed the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

Ten years after changes in the way ITV licences were awarded to the then 15 companies, the network is now dominated by two giants - Granada Media and Carlton/United.

Concentration of ownership in ITV has led to a significant reduction in the volume of regional programme-making, and last year the union led a successful challenge against one licence-holder, Grampian, for failing to meet its obligation to local viewers.

The creation of a new regulator will also affect staff working in the current broadcasting regulators - ITC, Radio Authority, and Cable Authority. They face major upheavals as they are brought together under one roof with OFTEL. Many of them are BECTU members, and the union will be seeking assurances from government about their future security.

Under the proposals in the White Paper, which could become law after the next General Election, regulation of ownership and content will be concentrated into one new body, the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

The BBC, S4C, and the British Board of Film Classification, all remain as independent institutions, but Ofcom will be the final port of call for TV and Radio users who complain about public broadcasters failing to fulfill their remits.

Channels Four and 5 are to be regulated by Ofcom, with reviews planned for both. C4 can expect a firmer definition of its remit to provide "distinctive and innovative programming", while C5 may see some of its public service obligations relaxed as similar channels become more available through digital systems.

Regulation of broadcasting wavelengths, currently under the control of the Radiocommunications Authority, is also taken over by Ofcom. Spurred on by the £23bn auction of frequencies for 3rd Generation mobile phones earlier this year, the government plans to conduct an independent review of spectrum management, and will charge Ofcom with achieving "more efficient" use of available non-military frequencies.

In the White Paper, jointly produced by the Trade Ministry DTI, and Culture Ministry DCMS, the government pledges to maintain quality and diversity in broadcasting.

Ofcom will be legally empowered to demand that public service broadcasters feature prominently in the electronic programme guides which control access to digital cable and satellite platforms, and will also extend obligations for carriage of PSB programming on digital systems.

Universal access to the internet is promised by 2005, either through home, work, or community centres. On the other hand, no firm date is fixed in the White Paper for switching off the nation's analogue TV transmitters - Ofcom will inherit a commitment that switch-off will not occur until 95% of consumers have access to digital equipment.

Radio services are likely to face fewest changes once Ofcom takes over regulation of their sector. The White Paper pledges support for "the universal availability of BBC radio", and promises that the current loose regulation of commercial radio will continue.

Ofcom will take over responsibility for the roll-out of local digital radio, as well as the re-advertising of many commercial radio licences.

The White Paper was published after a period of public consultation, during which the union submitted its views on the future of the regulatory structure.

Read BECTU's submission to government

BECTU has welcomed the White Paper's confidence in the quality and future role of existing public service broadcasters, who are said to maintain 40% of audiences in digital households with access to as many as 250 TV channels.

However, during the period of consultation on the government's plans for the broadcasting and telecommunications industries, the union is likely to raise concerns about the effect that increased concentration of ownership will have on regional diversity, especially in ITV.

The union response will also question whether regulation of content, aimed at maintaining quality and diversity, will be properly fullfilled within a single organisation which also has responsibility for all business matters, some of which like takeovers could cause a conflict of interest within Ofcom.

13 December 2000