Media: A giant gambles on its muscle

Not even Birmingham, a city noted for its prickly pride, is likely to feel aggrieved at the loss of its own independent television company. Franchises come and go. Only Granada - partly because of its longevity, but mostly because of Coronation Street - attracts the local loyalty usually reserved for football teams. West Midlands demonstrators will not march behind banners that demand 'Save Our Central'. The problem of the Carlton-Central merger principally concerns television in general, not regional television in particular.

The argument for the amalgamation is the arrangement of a perfect partnership between Central, a distinguished programme maker, and Carlton, an unashamed publisher that prefers to buy in ready-made sitcoms and costume dramas. But only a pathological optimist will believe that the outcome will be more high-quality programmes made in Nottingham and broadcast from London.

In theory, Central is obliged to keep the promises concerning the quality of programmes, the amount of original work and the maintenance of regional broadcasting that it made to the Independent Television Commission when it won the franchise. But everyone now agrees that the Television Act under which the franchise was won was a nonsense. If Carlton is firmly in charge, it is not inconceivable that it will petition the ITC about the sheer impossibility of maintaining the standards that Central guaranteed. The ITC might then accept reductions in standards as the inevitable response to economic reality.

There is the possibility that Carlton, a company that makes money rather than programmes, will maintain its obligations to the ITC by extending the worst features of Central's record. Of course, Inspector Morse and Spitting Image will be networked. The real question concerns Central Weekend, a 'discussion programme' that joyfully describes itself as the 'tabloid of television'. It is cheap to make and apparently popular. A typical evening involved the discussion of gay rights with skinheads and National Front members among the participating audience. It is unlikely to win any prizes. But it is just the sort of programme that a company more concerned with profit than performance is likely to promote.

The real commercial danger concerns advertising. No doubt when Parliament is told of the Central- Carlton merger (and asked to rubber- stamp the regulations that will make it lawful) there will be assurances about the two amalgamated companies selling advertising separately, to avert a protracted investigation by the Monopolies Commission. Such assurances are not worth the paper they are written on. In the years when I was responsible for the Monopolies Commission, it never received an assurance of good conduct that anyone regarded as inviolate. No doubt the promises were honestly made, but the market makes them impossible to keep.

It is easy to imagine the Carlton- Central company announcing in a year or two that much as it wished things were different, continued viability required it to offer a joint advertising rate which, in pounds per thousand of viewers, would be cheaper than anything its rivals could provide. One loser would then be Channel 4.

The amalgamation is a colossal risk. If it all turns out as the optimists hope (and Central no doubt intends), the only harm that will be done is another shift towards the south - not only studios and employees, but attitudes. More independent companies will make films in and about London. More and more decisions will reflect London values. If television has anything to do with a national culture, that is a thoroughly bad thing. If, however, its only object is making money, then perhaps it does not matter.

The author is Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook.

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