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Transmission merger brings a single ITV company closer

The creation of a single ITV company came a step closer yesterday with news that the network's transmission facilities are to be consolidated. As Cathy Newman reports, streamlining the existing 12 programme transmission centres into fewer than four is likely to cost up to 200 jobs, and could save ITV pounds 15m.

ITV's move to rationalise the way it transmits its programmes reflects the concentration of ownership within the network, and supports suggestions from some observers that ITV may eventually be controlled by a single owner.

A working party has been established to examine how efficiencies could be extracted from the transmission network, and findings are to be presented to key decision-makers at the next meeting of the ITV Council, the network's sovereign body.

Industry sources estimate that around 200 jobs could be eliminated by the rationalisation. ITV would invest some of the money saved - which insiders involved in the working party say could amount to pounds 15m - in its digital terrestrial television output. Extra funds are also likely be poured into programming, which ITV is keen to improve in its battle to maintain audience share against the cable and satellite companies.

The saving would be particularly welcome for ITV, which is to lose the pounds 70m fee it receives from Channel 4 each year.

Outside London, where GMTV, Carlton and LWT share programme transmission facilities, each of the franchises has its own centre, despite the fact that Carlton Communications, Granada Group, Scottish Media Group and United News & Media own 12 franchises between them.

A spokesman for ITV Network Centre yesterday confirmed that the ultimate aim was to replace the 12 centres with one or two and said: "There are a group of ITV companies which are now controlled by far fewer owners, who recognise they are duplicating costs unnecessarily."

Industry observers also pointed out that ITV's 12 transmission centres were excessive when compared to Channel 4 or the BBC, which both use a single location to transmit their programmes.

Gerry Robinson, chairman of Granada Group, said in June that the ITV companies would merge into a single group within a decade.

Over the past four years, the pace of change has been hectic, as ITV faces up to the need for greater consolidation in the face of competition from Channel 4 and 5, and cable and satellite television.

In 1993, the 15 franchises were awarded to 14 separate holding companies. Only three independent operators now remain, and one of those - Ulster Television - is looking increasingly vulnerable to a bid from Scottish Media.

So far this year, there have been three ITV mergers. Most recently, United - which owns the Anglia and Meridian franchises - snapped up HTV.

Scottish Media recently bought Grampian and Granada made its long-awaited swoop on Yorkshire-Tyne Tees Television. Granada also owns LWT, and could, according to some City analysts, make a move on Border Television at a later stage.