ITC accused over Ulster TV 'error'

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ONE OF the failed bidders in the 1991 ITV auction is demanding that the Independent Television Commission admit it made a mistake in awarding a licence to Ulster Television.

The Duke of Abercorn's TV Northern Ireland has accused the ITC of making a 'political decision' to return the licence to UTV and not, as it said at the time, because the TVNI consortium's revenue forecasts were too optimistic.

The accusations were prompted by the publication of UTV's first results under the new Channel 3 regime. According to Alan Wright, who led the TVNI bid, they prove that his own forecasts were 'extremely accurate'. He said: 'It was a political judgement and not an economic one. These figures now prove that.'

TVNI, chaired by the Belfast peer and backed by the Thomson Corporation, the newspaper giant, and the venture capitalists 3i, outbid UTV by nearly pounds 2m with a tender of pounds 3.1m. However, its application was thrown out on the grounds that it would be 'unable to sustain its bid'.

Mr Wright said he felt 'extremely bitter' to see UTV's first year's revenue come in at pounds 28m. TVNI's business plan, confidential until now, had forecast pounds 3m less for advertising and programme sales.

'Far from being an over-optimistic prognosis, our figures are in fact modest and reasonable. There was absolutely no justification for the ITC to infer in their judgement that we would not be able to sustain our figures,' said Mr Wright, who feels the ITC business judgement was 'suspect'.

The ITC denies there was any hidden agenda. It took the decision to hand the licence back to UTV 'on the basis of information at the time'.

'Anything now is hindsight,' a spokesman said. He refused to say if the ITC would now give a full explanation for TVNI's rejection.

TVNI tried to challenge the ITC's decision immediately, but its application for a judicial review was denied. This was despite the fact that it was the only consortium challenging an incumbent ITV company, apart from Carlton Television, to pass the quality threshold and make the highest bid.