Invasion of the babysnatchers

The ITV big boys are to merge, forming one giant company in England and Wales. But what is to become of the smaller stations marooned at the extremities of the British Isles?
Click to follow

Oscar Puffin, the star of the Channel Television children's programme Puffin's Plaice, was the only character to feature on ITV schedules during the national strike of 1979. Oscar, whose sole purpose is entertaining children in the Channel Isles, may survive the ITV merger too. Channel TV's managing director, Michael Lucas, acknowledges that "everything has a price," but Channel TV is 75 per cent privately owned by the Iliffe family, who would have to agree to any sale.

Channel is one of just three of the original 15 ITV companies to remain outside the control of Carlton and Granada. The other two are SMG in Scotland and Ulster TV in Northern Ireland. The assumption is growing that SMG's two Scottish franchises and Ulster Television's lucrative Northern Irish one will inevitably fall prey to Charles Allen's and Michael Green's merged behemoth.

The former Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond says: "There is a lot to do to make the merger work and I don't think Scottish Television, Grampian or Ulster TV are going to be top of anyone's agenda in the next few years. But when merger is complete, these companies are going to look like little appendages on the end of appendages."

Alasdair McDonnell, the trade and industry spokesman for Northern Ireland's SDLP, agrees. He believes that UTV's proven profitability will make it very attractive to the merged ITV. McDonnell says: "If everything was to be consolidated it would be very bad news. I would look to the Competition Commission to be very robust indeed. I am concerned about the increasing Americanisation of our culture. It is a threat to creativity."

In Wales, the ITV station HTV Wales is already owned by Carlton. Here, concern is immediate. Professor Justin Lewis, of the Cardiff School of Journalism, says: "People at HTV are living in a climate where they are very aware of the fragility of their jobs. They are not sure that Wales will be considered important enough to have a freestanding ITV station."

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, gave her consent to merger with the claim that "a stronger ITV in England will be better able to invest in and provide programming of high quality, including regional programmes". That confidence was duplicated in official statements from SMG, HTV Wales and Ulster Television. Clive Jones, the chairman of HTV, said: "It is probably good news for everybody, and should mean, hopefully, that the companies which make up ITV will be better off than they were before." Andrew Flanagan, the chief executive of SMG, said: "A strong ITV is in the interests of all concerned."

It was not immediately apparent that they were talking about viewers as well as shareholders. Bectu, the broadcasting union, was not obviously convinced. It responded with an immediate call to the companies to convene urgent meetings on the implications for regional programming. Bectu claimed credit for winning commitments in the recent Communications Act to protect regional television, and the assistant general secretary, Gerry Morrissey, said: "We intend to ensure that these hard-won commitments will be reflected in the merged company."

Greg Philo, of the media unit at Glasgow University, says that will be hard. "The problem with the growth of global television is that Britain itself is becoming a region. We used to think of Britain as the entity and the regions as elements within it, but the whole argument for this merger was that it will allow ITV to compete internationally. The priorities are going to be anything but what local viewers want in order to reflect their own culture."

Ted Brocklebank is a Conservative MEP. Before entering politics he spent his career in television as a senior executive with Grampian and later as managing director of his own company, Greyfriars Productions. Brocklebank says: "It is a question of when, not if, Scottish Television and Grampian will be bought. So will Ulster TV. I think that will happen within the next 18 months. But the point is not who owns them but whether Ofcom will be robust enough to ensure that they maintain a real commitment to regional programming. The regulator must be determined to take a strong line on maintaining distinctiveness."

Greg Philo does not believe that will happen. "To get that would require really specific commitments in the legislation and they are simply not there. It is a shame. Television is such an important part of the life of a nation such as Scotland or Wales."

Oscar Puffin might thrive even if Channel Television is sold. Channel only makes five-and-a-half hours of local programming per week and any new owner would be required to keep most of that. But the position is less reassuring in places where audiences have traditionally expected a lot more local programming. Would expensive drama, like SMG's Taggart, survive? What of detailed scrutiny of the new devolved institutions? Justin Lewis says: "It is a huge problem. It could even have consequences for the viability of the Welsh Assembly. Turnout at the last election was disastrous, and one reason for that was that media coverage was minimal. If people don't know about it they may conclude that there is no point in having it."