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More hurdles ahead for Channel 5 bids

With the Government still dithering on new rules for cross-ownership in the media, the market is moving ahead with its own solutions. Several bidders for Channel 5 are designing clever ways around the regulations, perhaps even with the subtle if unofficial blessing of the Independent Television Commission. All of them can justifiably claim to be following a path already well trodden by Rupert Murdoch and, to a lesser extent, Carlton and Granada. Mr Murdoch defies all restrictions with his controlling interest in both broadcast TV and newspapers. Carlton and Granada, by taking over Central Television and LWT, ended up with 36 per cent each of ITN, the independent producer of news services for ITV and Channel 4. The ITC meekly allowed the deal to stand until the end of 1995, to see if the Government might want to change the rules.

The current ownership restrictions make for mind-numbing reading. They cover every eventuality, from newspapers owning television licences to ITV companies investing in cable. The rule most under pressure today covers newspaper publishers, who cannot own more than 5 per cent of a second ITV licence holder including the proposed Channel 5.

Of the three contenders left for the new terrestrial service, all face hurdles under the ITC rules. Associated Newspapers and Pearson are worst off; both already have a stake in an ITV licence holder. Result? A 5 per cent ceiling for Channel 5.

The fact that every bidder so constrained is devising ways to avoid the rules is testimony to how likely the restrictions are to go. Stephen Dorrell, the Heritage Secretary, is virtually certain to wipe them away next month, when he unveils the results of his review of ownership limits. He may even go further, and raise the general limits on all cross-ownership to 29.9 per cent from the current 20 per cent.

The rules also help to explain why quite so many partners have lined up together to launch their bids, and why some have backed out altogether. Channel 5 is likely to be the last new terrestrial channel in Britain, in a sector that is in slow decline.

There is money to be made, to be sure, despite the declining share of audience and advertising revenues accounted for by the terrestrial television market. But there are also risks, which must be shared around. It is hard to entice enough partners to make your investment work if some of your key partners are limited to such risibly small shareholdings.

Yet some kind of regulation is clearly needed. The dangers of concentration in the media are obvious, not least in the areas of news and public affairs. A solution that might serve would see ownership restrictions replaced by market dominance limits. For instance, the newspaper, television and other media holdings of a single company might be looked at together, as a percentage of the total advertising market or of total viewership and circulation.