YTT schedule shake-up alarms watchdog

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The Independent Online

Media Editor

Radical changes to the schedules of Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees, proposed by TV executive Bruce Gyngell, have provoked grave concerns at the Independent Television Commission.

In an unusual move, the ITC said yesterday that it had "doubts whether the new programmes proposed would improve the services to the satisfaction of viewers." But rather than insist the plans not go ahead, the commission has decided to monitor the new schedule until the end of March 1996 before making a final decision on whether the changes will be allowed.

The ITC has the right to intercede when ITV licence holders change their programming, to ensure that all services are in accordance with the terms of the licences it grants to television companies.

Mr Gyngell, who has made waves since he joined as managing director of Yorkshire-Tyne Tees earlier this year, has moved to reduce costs and to revamp the regional programming schedule.

At the heart of his new approach is the incorporation of regional segments within magazine-style programming, in place of regularly scheduled regional programmes.

While the ITC recognises that the change will mean more regional programming in peak viewing hours, there is concern that the licence-holders' commitment to non-news regional material may be waning.

The ITC has also pointed to Mr Gyngell's intention of making greater use of co-productions, which the commission fears might reduce the range and number of independent production companies supplying the two channels.

The outspoken Mr Gyngell, known for his pink shirts and his unorthodox management style, helped turn TV-am into one of the most successful franchises in the country.

Controversially, his company lost the licence to what is now GMTV in 1992, prompting former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to send a letter expressing her disappointment.

Mr Gyngell spent the past three years in Australia with Kerry Packer's Nine Network, returning to join YTT in May.

YTT insiders say his management style has shaken up the group, and has provoked the departure of middle-level executives. Mr Gyngell, with the equally outspoken YTT chairman, Ward Thomas, considers that the ITV television system needs big changes - not least a reform of its fragmented regional character.

Already, YTT has joined forces with Granada and London Weekend Television, to jointly sell their programmes abroad.

Their desire to see a more integrated ITV sector could come at the expense of YTT's own independence, however, as Granada and MAI, Lord Hollick's media and financial services company, have 15 per cent stakes in YTT and could launch takeover bids. Under the Government's intended relaxation of ownership restrictions, likely to be in place by the end of next year, either company could own YTT's two licences outright.

The ITC is believed to be concerned that the regional mandate of ITV companies be safeguarded, despite the likely consolidation.

Its decision to put Mr Gyngell's new plans on notice was seen last night as a warning shot to all ITV companies that the regional nature of the commercial television industry is to be maintained.