Outlook: Another reason to privatise the BBC

WHAT GOES round comes round. Go back to the 1970s and Viacom was an enforced spin-off from CBS because of US Federal rules, designed to protect the big Hollywood studios, banning the broadcast networks from owning their own entertainment production houses. Those rules were repealed a few years back and since then these two industries, production and broadcast, have been scrambling to re-marry.

Walt Disney has already bought ABC, while, never a stickler for the rules, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp managed some years ago to carve out its own fourth network while coincidentally owning the Fox film studios. Another recent rule change allowing ownership of more than one TV station in any one city has now allowed Viacom to reunite with CBS. Of the big networks, only NBC, part of General Electric, is left looking for a partner.

Media isn't the only business where deregulation is allowing torn apart companies to come together again. Telecommunications is the other obvious case. Across the industrial spectrum, "vertical integration" - the tying together of product and distribution - has once again become the big corporate end game.

The merits of this process are at best debatable, both from a public interest perspective and in terms of commercial benefit to the new partners, but there seems to be no stopping it now. In the US, both business leaders and policy makers share a common vision; the creation of these media goliaths will allow global domination in this, one of the world's fastest growth industries. Quite why worldly ambition of this sort should still be exercising Sumner Redstone, 75, is a mystery, but rediscovered youth (Rupert Murdoch is 68) seems to be something of a prerequisite on the US media scene.

Back here in the UK, we've always allowed the vertical integration of production and broadcast, but that's where our liberal approach to these matters ends. In other respects broadcast TV is highly regulated while, through the BBC, nearly a half of it is still publicly owned. This is a shame, because in the BBC we also have a global brand to compete with the very best that the US can offer. Unfortunately, it may not long remain so.

If giant global media players of the type about to be created by Viacom are the future, then the BBC, lacking both the stock and the cash to play the same game, will find itself marginalised and it won't be long before Nickalodeon, MTV and the Nashville Network are better recognised on the streets of Calcutta than dear old Auntie. For all we know, they already are.

If you take the view that the BBC's role should be confined to British public service broadcasting, then this may not seem to matter very much. But even that position would seem to be in considerable danger. The more that viewers are persuaded to pay for cable and satellite TV, the harder it is to justify the licence fee and the less willing people are to pay it. One way or another, privatisation of the BBC is going to have to return to the political agenda in the months and years ahead.

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