Media: The quality control is still on: Two major ITV companies plan to merge - but will viewers notice? Michael Leapman assesses the industry's ability to make new owners stick to their predecessors' promises

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The Independent Online
This week's proposed television merger between Carlton and Central has excited media analysts and high rollers in the City. But what about the rest of us, who just sit in front of the television waiting for something decent to come on? How will it and other expected takeovers affect us?

Not much, in theory. Since the Government announced the relaxation of the restrictions on large ITV company mergers last week, both the Department of National Heritage and the Independent Television Commission have stressed that whoever owns the companies will have to stick to the terms of the licences granted to the original applicants when they were awarded their franchises.

Despite that, many ITV executives think some impact on programmes is inevitable. It could be felt both in local programming and in offerings to the network, where the issue is complicated by the difference in nature between the old and new television companies.

Old-timers such as Central, which broadcasts to the Midlands, are programme makers as well as broadcasters. Carlton, holder of the London weekday franchise, is a new-style publisher/contractor, commissioning the bulk of its programmes from independent producers. Will Carlton, the dominant partner, seek to transform its acquisition into a publisher/contractor too?

Michael Green, its chief executive, says not. Indeed, he wants to channel more ITV production into Central's under-used Nottingham studio. David Glencross, chief executive of the ITC, says he would not necessarily allow a switch of roles, any more than a new owner could renege on a franchise- holder's responsibilities to its region.

'Making programmes for the region and for the network is written into their licence application,' he says. 'They would have to get our consent for any change.'

In its application, Central stressed that it was 'a producer-broadcaster, making programmes as well as broadcasting them and guaranteeing, through that process, the standards of the service we shall provide'. It promised 'quality programmes in every category, that are both fully appreciated and watched by a large number of viewers,' and mentioned building a new Birmingham studio as a means of providing them. That plan was later shelved - with the ITC's approval.

'We anticipate that they will increasingly seek to rationalise production facilities,' Mr Glencross said. 'We will have to look at these proposals as they are made.'

That the ITC does have power to act in these areas was proved when it prevented the companies from shifting News at Ten to an earlier hour, and when it insisted that Tyne-Tees kept to all its regional obligations when it was taken over by Yorkshire. Yet at the same time the commission is sensitive to commercial considerations and would not insist on companies sticking to the strict letter of their licence bids if they could show any change would not diminish their service to viewers.

One development that Mr Glencross fears if large regional production centres are closed is a concentration of media production in London and the South-east. 'This might affect the diversity of the output,' he warns.

This fear is not shared by Gus Macdonald, managing director of Scottish Television, who favours the new freedom to merge. He believes Manchester will remain a major production centre because Granada would be the dominant partner in any merger, whoever it teamed up with (London Weekend Television is the most likely other half).

'Mergers could lead to cross-fertilisation between places like Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham, especially in drama,' he says, 'though we may see a concentration of light entertainment in London because that's where most of the entertainers are.'

His chief worry about the emergence of larger ITV companies is that it could compromise the independence of the network centre, which at the moment has a free hand to choose from programmes offered by the 14 companies and independent producers.

'We could end up with three big companies representing 75 per cent of the network. They will want to find slots for their programmes and might be able to put a lot of pressure on the network centre.'

The fear most often expressed is that that regional programmes might suffer in mergers. Mr Glencross says the ITC will insist that merged companies make the number of hours of regional programmes specified in the original licences.

Simon Forrest, director of public affairs for HTV, the Welsh franchise holder, is not convinced. 'It's not the hours but the budgets that count,' he says. 'The ITC can keep them to their promise of making 10 to 15 hours of local programming a week, but it can't say how much money should be spent on those programmes.'

Mr Macdonald disagrees. 'The rules are about quality just as much as quantity,' he says. 'Regional programmes cost between pounds 20,000 and pounds 25,000 an hour. The kind of programmes you have to make are very clearly defined and if you have to cut budgets much below that you would affect the quality.

'The ITC is making us fill in very detailed forms at the end of the first year of the new franchises to tell them exactly what we have made for the region. They have a formidable battery of powers if they feel we haven't lived up to our promises.'

The ultimate power - confiscation of the licence in mid-term - is so formidable that it has never been used in the 38- year history of ITV. Mr Glencross may find himself wielding the threat, at least, several times over the next few months, to ensure that something like normal service is sustained on our screens as the new ITV takes shape.

IN TERMS of programming, Central brings the stronger hand to the merger. Programmes commissioned by Carlton have appeared only 30 times in the weekly list of 40 top-rated programmes so far this year, compared with Central's 95 - although three of Central's top five programmes are British versions of American formats. Although the stations control about a third of ITV advertising revenue, thay have contributed only 18 per cent of licensees' entries in the top 40.

----------------------------------------------------- Appearances in weekly Top 40 ----------------------------------------------------- CENTRAL ----------------------------------------------------- The Upper Hand 20 Celebrity Squares 17 The Cook Report 10 Family Fortunes 10 Soldier, Soldier 10 Peak Practice 8 Pot of Gold 6 Lifeboat 5 Others 9 ----------------------------------------------------- CARLTON ----------------------------------------------------- Body and Soul 6 The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna 5 Dave Allen 4 Frank Stubbs Promotes 4 Others 11 ----------------------------------------------------- Source: Barb