from where I stand: Leslie Hill looks at quality programming amid multiple channels

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The Independent Online
Britain is two weeks away from its first glimpse of a new Broadcasting Bill. The Queen's Speech is expected to introduce significant cross-media ownership proposals, as well as shape the new digital television industry, embracing, perhaps, as many as 30 and 40 new channels. And ITV ownership arrangements may be given a further tweak. With the new BBC Charter making its way through Parliament this autumn, British broadcasting will, once again, be under the microscope.

Parliament will be legislating for an industry that has just gained a fifth channel and which has the digital terrestrial and satellite revolution breathing hard down its neck. There will be plenty of opportunities, but no certainty about how they can be used. Or how this new array of channels will interact with each other.

That is why ITV commissioned a report by the media consultancy Spectrum, which is published today. As the report shows, the established broadcasters contribute considerably more - economically, socially and culturally - than is assumed. Spectrum calculates that the value of ITV's contribution to the UK is pounds 2bn a year - serious money, and more than half the economic contribution of all British television. Compared with the rest of Europe, our main terrestrial channels - BBC and ITV - invest more in programming, show fewer repeats and sustain a stronger production base than any other country. ITV is the most popular channel in Europe. Why? Because big investment in high-quality original programmes wins big audiences; big audiences win big advertising revenue, and that revenue enables us to invest in high-quality original programmes. A virtuous circle.

Between them the BBC and ITV make more than 80 per cent of new UK programmes. What has enabled them to be twin pillars is that successive governments (despite the ITV licence auction) have created an environment to nurture their strengths. But the landscape is changing. Technology means greater choice. As well as Channel 5, there is satellite and cable, plus the imminent digital revolution. And there's the rub. Because so far, even with the arrival of many new channels, there has been little commensurate increase in new television programmes.

The new services offer mainly films, sport and US programmes, which is fine. As far as it goes. As long as viewers still have Coronation Street and Pride and Prejudice, the choice is genuinely more extensive.

What the new channels, with their reliance on small niche audiences, are unlikely to provide is a wide range of originally made, high-quality, popular programmes.

The conclusion reached by Spectrum is that if we are serious about wanting to continue to have the most successful television industry in Europe, we need the BBC and ITV to remain strong. If either weakens, there is little prospect of any other channel replacing them.

This does not mean we should seek protection. There is no doubt that, so far, competition has proved beneficial. As a commercial operation, ITV is now an infinitely better managed, streamlined channel than it was. The BBC has also shown itself ready to make tough decisions. What we do need, however, is fair and balanced competition.

Change and more competition, like death and taxes, are inevitable. What is important is how it is managed. When Parliament comes to legislate for broadcasting it must look at the whole edifice, not just at one corner. Pulling out one brick, like the present Channel 4 safety-net funding mechanism, for example, could have much wider consequences. The Channel 4 funding mechanism is due to be reviewed in 1997. That will be the year before the Independent Television Commission has to decide how it will deal with those ITV licences whose owners seek to renegotiate payments to the Treasury. The relationship between the payments ITV makes to the Government - likely to be well over pounds 400m a year by then - should be considered in the context of broadcasting as a whole, including the arrivals of Channel 5 and digital.

And when Parliament comes to judgement, it should, from where I stand, have as its primary objective the use of our great creative talent in making TV programmes. We are a world-class success story. Let's keep it that way.

The writer is chairman of ITV.