ITV told: make 'beneficial' shows, or lose out

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The Independent Culture

ITV faces losing its traditional spot as the third British television station, while Channel 4 and Five might have to change their names unless they agree to make lasting contributions to public service programming.

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will say today that he intends to introduce legislation which will link a channel's position in the all-important Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) to its commitment to showing programmes of "cultural and social benefit".

A prominent position at the top of the EPG is a critical factor in guaranteeing a large audience, and with it the advertising revenues on which the big commercial public service broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4 and Five – depend. In return for the favoured positions, they would agree to screen a proportion of programming of educational merit, such as children's shows.

The channels, especially ITV, have complained that programmes, such as local news, do not generate enough advertising to be viable. But today, in a speech that outlines plans for a new era of local British television, Mr Hunt will pledge to give priority in the EPG to channels which embrace public service programming. He will say: "I intend to bring forward new legislation to clarify which PSB [Public Service Broadcasting] channels should get guaranteed positioning on page one of the Electronic Programme Guide and its future online equivalents. "As we move into a multi-channel, multi-platform era, this is likely to become the principle intervention through which we repay broadcasters who invest in content with a social or cultural benefit."

In a speech to the Royal Television Society, Mr Hunt will reveal interim findings of a Government report into the future of local television being carried out by Nicholas Shott, head of UK Investment Banking at Lazard. Mr Shott suggests, to be financially viable, local television might need a national corporate sponsor.

He suggests that local television should be based on the same channel, perhaps one of the existing national stations acting as a "host" and incorporating local television into its schedule via red button technology.

Alternatively, the local television channel would have its own prominent position in the EPG and the national public service broadcaster channels would support it with "pop up" prompts to advise viewers of the availability of local content elsewhere.