Only three weeks to go until Christmas, and most of us are frantically drawing up our Christmas lists. In my case, any careful thought of what presents I want to give and what I'd like to receive is usually overtaken by the general rush to buy overpriced and overhyped goods that don't quite meet expectations come the clear light of Boxing Day. Hmm, a bit like the world of broadcasting all year, then.
Until a few weeks ago, ITV was the must-have present this Christmas, with Greg Dyke and Richard Branson trying to buy it and Five's owner RTL doing some earnest window-shopping. But with Michael Grade taking up the reins in the new year and James Murdoch stuffing much of the company into BSkyB's capacious stocking, it looks as if the network is finally off most corporate wish-lists, at least for the time being.
While the fallout over ITV's ownership and Grade's defection continues, the wider picture in 2006 has been rather different. Traditional broadcasters haven't done much snuggling up under the mistletoe, leaving the likes of Google to swallow YouTube, and NTL to make out with Virgin. At the other end of the supply chain, independent producers have continued to gobble each other up, underlining the fact that as ease of access to the airwaves has been revolutionised, content really is king. The audacious purchase of the Question Time producer The TV Corporation by the Welsh minnow Tinopolis, and IMG Media's acquiring Tiger Aspect (producers of The Catherine Tate Show) among the more noteworthy deals.
So, as they sit on the mergers and acquisitions sidelines, what do the big broadcasters most want to find under their gaudy corporate trees? On everybody's list is a Freeview box, in particular as much of the scarce spectrum (ie the digital airwaves) as they can get their hands on. All covet a large share of the broadband revolution, too. Last but not least, a traditional victory in the Christmas ratings battle is always an end-of-year boost.
But it's what the individual companies want that really speaks volumes. At the BBC, Grade and Mark Thompson had been very organised, circulating their list months ago. They wanted a licence-fee settlement of at least 1.8 per cent above inflation over seven to 10 years, but Grade's shock departure has heightened speculation that it may receive much less, and over a shorter period. Prior to Grade's move, all the signs were that the BBC would soon discover just how merry a Christmas it will be. This may now have changed.
Whatever the outcome, the case for the licence fee has all but been made. The top priority now is finding a new chairman, a process that must be managed by Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, who says she hopes to make the appointment by next spring. There is added urgency, given that the chairman's primary role is to lead the new BBC Trust, which replaces the governors from 1 January.
The minor issues of chairman and licence fee aside, the BBC would also like to see an all-singing, all-dancing iPlayer nestling under the White City tree. The proposed broadband catch-up service will allow viewers to download and view BBC programmes, but commercial rivals have complained that it will hugely disadvantage them. The decision on the iPlayer will be one of the first big tests of the new Trust come the new year.
Over at ITV's HQ, it had been feeling like a bit of a Farepak-style Christmas until just a few weeks ago. The chairman Peter Burt's coup in luring Grade back to his roots may have transformed the network's prospects, but the new executive chairman will have to get to grips quickly with a huge range of structural and creative issues, such as the need to grab a share of the fragmenting digital market and to deliver programming that connects with younger audiences.
There are other pressing things on ITV's wish-list. Above all, it badly wants to see the CRR (contract rights renewal) agreement with advertisers unpicked because it restricts its revenues. There's hope that Grade's arrival may facilitate this. Rather unseasonably, the network would also like to ditch the kids (or give them just an hour of dedicated programming each day), and to lose all its hour of religious programming each week. It's a cheap shot but, as a friend said, ITV would also really like no more turkeys in the schedule.
Channel 4 doesn't really believe in Christmas, but that hasn't stopped it having a long list of goodies in its alternative Christmas message. Chief executive Andy Duncan wants cash (or, at the very least, some big vouchers), having said all year that he needs far more public money if the channel is to be able to continue to support public-service ventures. So will Duncan, asking the Oliver Twist question, be allowed some more? Much will depend on the review of the channel's finances being carried out by Ofcom, which is due to report shortly.
Digital radios are one of the most popular gifts this year, and Channel 4 is never slow to tune into a trend. In this case, Andy Duncan would love the licence to become the second national commercial digital operator. This would allow Channel 4 to run up to 10 national radio stations for a minimum of 12 years. Other declared bidders are National Grid Wireless, one of the founders of Freeview, which has said it plans to be a "neutral host" for radio operators wanting to broadcast to the UK; and, last week, a consortium led by GCap and BT joined the fray.
Over at Five, what chief executive Jane Lighting would really like (aside from hoping to make out under the mistletoe with ITV) is a bigger programme budget - she currently has about £215m to spend, less than half that of Channel 4 and less than a quarter of ITV's programming pot. What Five really needs is more acquisitions or home-grown hits like its one real breakout show, CSI. It will also be hoping that the well-regarded new managing director, Lisa Opie, who arrived last week, will help to make a difference.
Finally, down in its Osterley lair, the pantomime villain of the broadcast world, BSkyB, is rather meanly coveting everybody else's presents. Sky One's new controller, Richard Woolfe, has already pinched one of Channel 4's favourites, Lost, and is eyeing up other goodies. But these are just the eye-catching baubles hanging on the tree - what BSkyB fancies most is devouring Five or ITV in their entirety.
And, for those looking for a deeper strategy, there is talk that James Murdoch may be willing to swap his recently acquired stake in the network for RTL's ownership of Five, since the media ownership rules say that BSkyB is only allowed to own one-fifth of ITV. In my family, we have always been banned from swapping our Christmas presents, but - as this year has shown - the world of broadcasting has no such inhibitions.
Dominic Crossley-Holland is executive producer, BBC current affairsReuse content