Media: Is it time to call off the dogs?

The Independent Television Commission is under fire from a host of critics and vested interests. But, argues its chief executive, as the digital revolution sweeps the industry it must stand up for the interests of consumers.
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The Independent Culture
Peter Rogers does not seem to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Instead, he has the demeanour of a rather affable headmaster, slightly dismayed at the unruliness of his pupils.

And yet Mr Rogers, the chief executive of the Independent Television Commission (ITC), is under attack from all directions. First, there are those who say that the ITC should have no business deciding on whether or not News at Ten should be abolished - that such things should be left to the market.

In a second camp are the critics who assert that the ITC is out of its depth when it tries to regulate on economics, and that it has got itself into a mess trying to determine the shape of Britain's digital future. Rarely, since it was set up eight years ago, has the television regulator been so widely criticised.

The latest broadsides began at the recent Edinburgh International Television Festival. Peter Bazalgette, the television executive who delivered the prestigious McTaggart lecture, declared that the age of the ITC was over, that the regulation of television content was redundant, as viewers had become grown-ups and could make their own choices.

The view was seconded by Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, and chief executive of Sky Networks. She spoke of an explosion of choice in television viewing, and of programming decisions no longer being enforced on people from the top down. "The public will decide," she said.

Mr Rogers leapt to his own defence, and seemed very much like a senior figure from the old school taking on uppity young rebels. Then, before the week was out, he was presented with one of the most difficult "top down" decisions of his career. His organisation will, after consultation, have to dictate whether the public gets to keep its news at 10pm.

To some degree, Mr Rogers is caught between a rock and a hard place. Let News at Ten remain, and he will receive brickbats from the Bazalgettes and Murdochs who think a fixed time slot absurdly anachronistic when CNN, Sky and the BBC are all broadcasting 24 hours news on other channels.

Allow News at Ten to be abolished, and the majority of viewers who have not yet signed up to the new channels will, along with Tony Blair, doubtless voice complaints or even a sense of betrayal.

Mr Rogers acknowledges that he is at an uncomfortable juncture between television past and television future. He says that the ITC's decision on News at Ten must be based on the situation as it is now, not as it might be in a year or two's time. "Seventy per cent of people still have only terrestrial channels... and the decision will be harder in a few years when 60-70 per cent are receiving Sky and CNN."

Rogers, 57, is a grammar school boy who became a career civil servant before joining the ITC's predecessor the IBA in 1982. Working his way through the ranks, he reached the top job at the ITC in 1996. His approach hints that ITV may not get its way.

"A decision on News at Ten has come before the Commission before," he says. "And it may come before the Commission again."

The second line of attack - on the ITC's forays into economic regulation - could cause the regulator permanent damage. It faces a legal argument that it has been acting beyond its powers - that it has become too big for its boots.

Mr Rogers smiles wryly when this is mentioned, and points out two large black files in his office, full of legal documents. The case, brought by programming company Flextech, is about a phenomenon known in the industry as "bundling" - the process whereby less popular television channels are bundled together with other more desirable channels to make one "package" which then goes on sale to the consumer.

There is a joke which explains bundling. Two mice are sitting together watching television. "Why are we watching the Kitty Kat channel?" says one mouse. "Oh, we had to subscribe to the Kitty Kat channel to get the cheese channel," replies the second.

Mr Rogers and the ITC outlawed "big bundles" of channels, even though bundling contracts had already been signed. They thought it unfair that subscribers to Sky or cable should have to buy into big basic packages of channels, which would include some channels which they simply did not want. Mr Rogers presents his decision as serving consumers' interests.

But the backlash from the television industry has been vicious. "The ITC does not understand the market," is one allegation. "You can't interfere with contracts freely drawn up between two parties."

"The decision does not serve the consumer at all," is another. "It will mean the end of smaller niche channels, which need to hitch a ride with more populist channels. That reduces viewer choice."

Mr Rogers might well be on shaky ground. When questioned, he acknowledges that two other industry watchdogs, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and OFTEL, both reached different conclusions on bundling. They thought the market would sort out the big bundles - that Sky, cable and terrestrial providers would compete to offer smaller, lower priced packages.

"We thought this might happen in the fullness of time," says Mr Rogers. "But not quickly enough. It was crucial that we intervened and that digital television got off on the right foot."

Many in the industry see this as a busy-body approach, asking not only whether the regulator should be interfering in such matters, but whether it has a role to "promote digital" at all. You don't have car industry regulators promoting hatchbacks, they argue, or building industry regulators campaigning for bungalows.

The ITC is said to be anxious about the imminent judicial review. If it loses, its credibility will suffer greatly at a time when there is a turf war amongst regulatory bodies to see who will survive and flourish in the digital age.

Mr Rogers says that, despite criticisms that television is dogged by regulatory spaghetti, the ITC or something like it should continue to exist alongside OFTEL and the OFT. He would like to see the demise of the Broadcasting Standards Commission though, and wants the BBC brought under the same regulatory umbrella as commercial companies.

"Television should have a wholly new body," he says, "which is not the ITC. I'm an old man who retires in two and a half years' time - I've no axe to grind."

In that sense, Mr Rogers is battling only to ensure that the ITC distinguishes itself in its final years. It only makes his task harder that these years are throwing up the biggest challenges of the regulator's short history.