Mathew Horsman

Wooing the television vote
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The Independent Online
Labour has always been good for commercial television, Ward Thomas, the sage chairman of ITV company Yorkshire-Tyne Tees, said recently. He maintains that Labour governments have tended to lower the onerous taxes on ITV licence holders, while Conservative governments tend to increase them.

His observation raises a rather interesting point. Which of the two options at the next election would media companies prefer? And what do they think they will get out of a government they consider to their liking?

The question is normally raised in relation to newspapers and their editorial recommendations on the eve of the national poll. Will Lord Hollick, the Labour peer who now oversees Express Newspapers, push for a shift in the mid-market titles' traditional political leaning - right-wing, and little Englander? Which way will the national broadsheet papers lean? And what about Rupert Murdoch? His tabloid newspapers were, of course, stalwart supporters of Margaret Thatcher, and, less fulsomely, of John Major. Will The Sun and the News of the World come out for Tony Blair this time?

But it is not just the editorial judgments of Fleet Street that count. Television companies have a vested interest in the outcome of the election - not least Michael Grade's Channel 4, which may or may not be privatised depending on the political complexion of the party that dominates next time round.

The Conservative government is a well-known commodity when it comes to media policy. After all, it has just spent the better part of a year putting together the new Broadcasting Act, which comes into force at the beginning of November. We know, therefore, that the two biggest newspaper publishers - Mirror Group and Murdoch's News International - won't be allowed to expand further in the ITV sector, unless they sell off some of their newspaper titles. (One of those titles is this one.) We also know that the Government is prepared to countenance further consolidation among ITV companies and in commercial radio.

A re-elected Tory government would, of course, make some changes. It has already conceded that the Independent Television Commission, the commercial TV watchdog, will be reviewing ITV licence payments, and will probably agree to lower the amount paid by many licencees. But that would jeopardise some of the pounds 400m or so that the Treasury receives from commercial broadcasters, and no government likes to forgo revenues. So even the Conservatives, who might have thought they had done with things media-tique, will have to review the tax structure that now rules the ITV sector, probably by 1998. A possible outcome: extending the tax base to include other broadcasters - Channel 4, cable companies, maybe BSkyB - and setting a standard "spectrum tax rate".

What would a Labour government do? The Mirror Group, owner of 46 per cent of The Independent, is convinced Labour would change at least one aspect of the current Broadcasting Act at some point in the not too distant future. Mirror Group insiders say Labour has privately assured them that the 20 per cent ceiling on ITV stakes that now applies to Mirror and News International would go. Again privately, Labour is also said to have assured Mirror Group that Murdoch would no longer get an easy ride from regulators and legislators.

That is rather odd, as insiders at Murdoch's 40 per cent-owned BSkyB insist Labour has made reassuring noises about how the satellite broadcaster will be treated by a future Blair government. Labour understands the risks that Murdoch ran in building his TV empire in the UK. Risk-taking should be rewarded.

A senior commercial broadcaster puts the point bluntly: "At this stage, Labour is telling everybody exactly what they want to hear. The message changes depending on who is in the room."

Adds another equally prominent executive: "Don't ask me what Labour's media policy is. I don't know. I suspect they don't know either."

Or maybe they are just keeping quiet. Why promise anything publicly, when it will only serve to disappoint one or another company? Better not to have much of a stated policy at all.

It is nearly official. The ITV companies are prepared to take up their allotted frequencies on the new digital terrestrial television service which the Government wants to see launched in early 1998. But the vast majority of ITV licence holders, and certainly the biggest ones, see no need to commit to anything further at this stage. That will mean telling the Independent Television Commission by 15 October that they will agree to "simulcast" the existing ITV schedule, probably adding the bell-and- whistle "widescreen" technology that the BBC, too, is offering as part of its planned digital TV package.

Any hope that an ITV2 may be in the offing, however, looks forlorn. ITV companies are not sure that DTT is going to work at all, and certainly don't like the idea of signing up for a new, expensive TV service that the punters won't stump up for.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are still considering their options. They, too, are likely to accept the Government's offer of guaranteed spectrum for simulcasting. In the case of Channel 5, DTT may even be a way of increasing the national coverage of Britain's fifth free-to-air channel in those areas of the country where the analogue signal won't be received.

But neither channel appears to be much excited about DTT's broader prospects as a new platform for television in the UK. And Channel 5, anyway, is far too preoccupied getting its analogue service up and running to be overly concerned about the next generation of broadcasting.