View From City Road: C5 search should go ahead

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The Independent Online
Would that the President of the Board of Trade had had a better grounding in the Old Testament. King Solomon, presented with two women each laying claim to the same baby, merely threatened to split the baby in half, a trick that revealed the real mother, since to save her child she renounced her rights. Michael Heseltine, faced with a similar problem, took a more literal approach. The result is proving deeply unsatisfactory.

Mr Heseltine's department is guardian of the nation's broadcasting frequencies, two sets of which are going spare. The advocates of jam today wanted them used for Channel Five - a free national service similar to ITV, which could be up and running by the end of next year. The supporters of jam tomorrow wanted them saved for the coming (no one knows when or at what cost) of digital television.

Mr Heseltine's solution was to divide the sets between the two camps, a fudge that is proving even worse than it at first seemed.

Limiting C5 to one set of frequencies meant it could be received by only 52 per cent of the country instead of the three-quarters first envisaged, although marginal frequencies may in due course push the figure up to 63 per cent.

Now it transpires that people living in two big cities, Birmingham and Glasgow, will need new aerials to receive C5.

That will reduce still further the new station's potential audience and so its advertising revenues. Indeed, it may be enough to tip the entire project, already near the edge, into unviability.

The Independent Television Commission is charged with sorting out this unholy mess. At its next meeting on 15 September it will have to decide whether to go ahead and advertise for C5 licensees.

It apparently grows ever colder the more it looks at the limited nature of the Government's frequency proposals; after all, it is charged with ensuring a viable, national C5 service.

Its attitude is understandable. The ITC has been deeply irritated both by the mess caused by Mr Heseltine's impractical solution and his department's cavalier attitude to the problem.

Nevertheless, while sabre-rattling may be a useful way to get Mr Heseltine's department to make a few more marginal frequency concessions, it does not justify pre-empting the market's verdict on whether C5 is a feasible proposition. The ITC should advertise and be damned.