Fight to stay in the picture: Commercial TV stations face a survival struggle that will reshape the industry. Patrick Hosking reports

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To critics of the brave new world of the television airwaves, the appointment last week of a 35- year-old catering manager with no broadcasting experience to run the mighty Granada Television was the last straw.

The recruiting of Charles Allen, an accountant by training, reinforced their worst fears - that the industry was being infiltrated by grey numbers men who would not care a hoot about programme quality.

But while viewers fear 'the suits' will axe World in Action and downgrade News at Ten to News at Eleven, shareholders are more alarmed about the survival of the stations themselves.

The outlook for commercial television was cloudy when prospective franchisees put in their bids early last year; it now looks worse, with less than four months until the new franchises begin on 1 January. Rarely has the industry faced so much uncertainty.

Advertising revenues are less buoyant than had been hoped, and the continuing recession bodes ill for future airtime demand. Meanwhile competition for audiences and advertisers has intensified, as more households link up to satellite and cable stations (which feed them satellite programmes) and the BBC starts flexing its muscles.

Few in the industry believe all 15 Channel 3 stations can survive in their present form. The scope for cost-cutting by merging stations is considerable and, for those with an eye to the bottom line, increasingly attractive.

Each television company is protected from hostile takeover until 1994. But the Independent Television Commission, the industry regulator, has already signalled its willingness to see friendly mergers by sanctioning the hasty marriage of Yorkshire and Tyne Tees.

Neill Junor, a media analyst with County NatWest, says: 'Advertising volumes will grow much more slowly than people expected when the bids were put in. I don't think there's a chief executive of any of the 15 TV companies who isn't seriously now looking at merger as one option.'

Because of the high fixed costs of television broadcasting - exacerbated for some by the large bids they put in - the industry is highly operationally geared. Better-than-expected revenues would give a disproportionately big boost to profits. Poorer-than-expected revenues would plunge some broadcasters into the red, and the soup.

The companies most at risk are those that put in the highest bids relative to size - Yorkshire ( pounds 37.7m), Anglia ( pounds 17.8m), HTV ( pounds 20.5m) and GMTV, formerly Sunrise ( pounds 34.6m). Carlton also put in a hefty bid ( pounds 43.1m), dislodging Thames, but is considered less vulnerable, because it has no in-house production costs.

The weaker companies may end up willingly seeking stronger partners. City pundits are constantly redrawing the map of how the UK may be carved up. However the borders are finally drawn, it is hard to believe there will be more than six terrestrial players left.

Alliances have already been forged. Anglia, Central and Ulster TV share a sales house. So do Scottish TV, HTV, Grampian and Westcountry. Other links are developing. Carlton has a seven-day newsroom joint venture with London Weekend Television. Granada and LWT are combining their export sales teams.

The ostensible aim of these alliances is to cut costs. But they may prove precursors to cross-shareholdings or eventual mergers. These have already begun. Carlton owns 20 per cent of Central, which in turn controls 20 per cent of Meridian, the bidder which has snatched the South Coast franchise from TVS.

Advertising revenues are the key to the industry. Modest sums are generated by selling programmes to the ITV network and to overseas broadcasters, but most income is from selling airtime to advertisers: 7 1/2 precious minutes of it each hour, 23 hours a day.

All the companies' bids, all their ambitious hopes, all their extravagant promises, are predicated on one key assumption: that total advertising expenditure will grow, and what is more, that it will grow faster than the total economy.

It is an assumption scarcely questioned in the industry. After all, it has held true for 30 years. Equally, by definition, it cannot hold true forever. Already 1.3 per cent of GDP is accounted for by advertising. Even in the United States the proportion is only 1.45 per cent.

Zenith Media, an arm of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and the largest media buyer in the country, forecasts that UK advertising expenditure will grow in real terms (1991 prices) from pounds 7.6bn to pounds 11.4bn by 2003 - equivalent to 1.6 per cent of GDP. Moreover, television will take a growing share of the advertising pound, poaching market share from newspapers and magazines.

Even so, it predicts that the ITV companies will see no real growth in advertising revenues at all for 10 years, because of the aggressive rise of new entrants to television, such as cable and satellite broadcasters.

The most serious threat is BSkyB. Since its creation in November 1990, when News Corporation's Sky was merged with the troubled British Satellite Broadcasting, there has been a dramatic turnaround in its fortunes. Ironically, its biggest fillips have come courtesy of the BBC. One was their joint pounds 304m bid in May to screen live Premier League football matches. They followed it up in June with a pounds 72m deal to cover FA Cup matches and England internationals for the next five years. They are also discussing a joint 24-hour news service.

Among the other rivals to traditional ITV, cable TV is also showing a bit of a spurt, because of deregulation which allows cable companies to offer telephone services as well as television. Cable is most threatening to companies with large urban audiences, such as Carlton and LWT.

The Channel 5 franchise, which could be broadcasting by next July, may add to airtime supply. Thames, which reports its results this Thursday, loses its franchise to Carlton TV in three months and will concentrate on programme production. It has also set up a satellite venture with the BBC, called UK Gold, to broadcast old favourites from their large back catalogues.

Meanwhile, from 1 January, Channel 4 starts to sell its own airtime, for the first time competing directly with C3 stations, which currently sell C4 airtime in their own territories and keep the proceeds.

Above this grim battle for advertising revenues hang more distant spectres. One is the possiblity that the BBC will take advertising in some shape (programme sponsorship, for example). Another is a ban on liquor advertising. Drink is the second biggest category of advertising, accounting for pounds 179m of TV ad spending in 1990.

Nor can the media assume the food industry, the biggest consumer of airtime ( pounds 387m in 1990), will always be as hungry. The conventional wisdom that their profits - and therefore their advertising spend - is proof against recession is looking less certain, as United Biscuits, Hillsdown Holdings and Bernard Matthews all reported profit slides last week.

Television advertising revenues are particularly volatile because of the curious way airtime is sold. The supply is virtually fixed. In contrast, newspapers and magazines reduce their paging when advertising demand is weak.

Advertisers secure airtime by bidding up the price for a particular slot. In boom times the stations give credence to Lord Thomson of Fleet's dictum that they had 'a licence to print your own money'. But when supply exceeds demand, the result is likely to be a slump in prices.

But ITV is far from dead. Dick Johnson, marketing director of Proctor & Gamble, is arguably the most influential man in the business. American- owned P & G buys more British airtime than any other advertiser, to hawk everything from Ariel washing powder to Pampers nappies.

He believes ITV will remain the dominant medium for a long time to come. 'It has the brand identity and character. It has the reach. And it has the advantage of regionalisation' - whereby areas of the country can be targeted. 'But at the end of the day we'll be buying advertising space where the audiences are.'

According to Alan Marmion, a consultant with Price Waterhouse: 'There is no doubt that the television sector as a whole will remain profitable. But spotting the winners and losers is more difficult. The winners will be those flexible enough to change. The dinosaurs who try to drag the structures they used in the Eighties into the Nineties will find life more difficult.'

For them, that licence to print money will become a death certificate.

(Photograph omitted)