A serious row threatened to erupt last night between the Government and the country's ITV companies over a controversial amendment to the Broadcasting Bill covering teletext services.
According to sources at three leading broadcasters, the Government did not consult the industry before tabling an amendment that would prevent ITV franchise holders from selling any teletext advertising space in their regions.
"This is directly against the guidelines that the Independent Television Commission laid down just a year ago," fumed a senior ITV broadcaster, who said his company had invested in new equipment to allow it to offer regional advertisers space on its own teletext pages.
The amendment would have the effect of protecting the near-monopoly of the national teletext company, Teletext, which is controlled by Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Mail and the Mail on Sunday.
ITV sources suggested last night that the Government had bowed to political pressure from Associated in advance of an election. "They must be pretty desperate to win votes," one ITV chief executive said.
Peter van Gelder, chief executive of Teletext, said last night: "We are grateful that there has been a clarification about what the ITV companies may do. The Government initially intended that the companies operate text services in support of their programmes, not that they would take advertising."
At least three companies - HTV, Scottish and Central - have complained about the amendment, and have written to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, asking her to reconsider. Leslie Hill, chairman of the ITV Association, is also believed to have written to the Government.
The ITV companies say they can provide a regional or even sub-regional teletext service, directly tailored to the needs of local advertisers.
Most offer a package of advertising space, including on-air and text pages, and see the teletext service as an important marketing tool.