Media: TV trauma the tinsel cannot hide: The chill winds of deregulation are interfering with broadcasters' seasonal cheer. Maggie Brown detects a deep sense of uncertainty

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If television is in the business of good cheer, never before has Christmas seemed so unfestive for those who work in it. The old order is changing on January 1 in ITV, BBC and Channel 4, giving rise to massive uncertainty.

The BBC may be moving into overdrive, taking its seasonal mission to entertain the nation very seriously. But Jonathan Powell, controller of BBC 1, is jumping ship as John Birt, the new director-general, prepares a big overhaul.

At the corporation's grassroots, many new television commissions have been frozen as the service grapples with its pounds 58m overspend. Auntie is not in as good a shape as her charter renewal document makes out.

Within ITV, Britain's most popular television network, there is an eerie silence as far as its Christmas programmes go: a half-hearted press release, but little more. Thames Television, the largest contractor, accustomed to dominating weekday programmes, is bracing itself for a glum handover to Carlton Television.

Granada, the grandfather of the network, is embarking on a brutal slim-down. Many of the key staff who have made it great during its 37 years are leaving or being frozen out, while the BBC is screening a night of classic Granada programmes during the Christmas period, as if to make a point. And ITV is still struggling to come to terms with what the new system of central commissioning and scheduling for nationally networked programmes means in practice for its output.

Another factor behind the low-key promotion of ITV's Christmas programmes, one executive explained, is that advertisers are less interested in buying spots in the holiday period, when people are at home celebrating - and watching television - than when they are out and about, shopping. That is why A Touch of Frost, Yorkshire Television's detective drama starring David Jason, which has been attracting a massive 16.8 million audience on Sunday nights, was timed to start two weeks ago. The plum programmes are reserved for more lucrative outings around, rather than during Christmas.

This sensitivity to the wishes of advertisers, which has always divided ITV from the BBC, has been tempered in the past with strict controls by the regulator over the nitty-gritty of the schedules, a regime that has ensured diversity. But from January 1 we are in deregulated waters, which are also tainted by recession. The Independent Television Commission will only be able to intervene after the event and judge schedules historically.

The ITC's director of programmes, Clare Mulholland, is gamely saying that the new ITV faces such a formidable list of requirements 'that any notion that the new era is one of deregulation, in which ITV is allowed to abandon all public service requirements in favour of market forces, rapidly fades'.

But anyone in close contact with ITV this autumn might have doubts. With advertising revenue still in the doldrums, commercial considerations have assumed great prominence, especially among the companies that made high bids for their franchises. ITN has had its budget beaten down, and ITV's overall annual network programme budget is pounds 80m lower than expected.

As yet, the on-screen changes extend little beyond the death of This Week and the uneasy relaunch of News at Ten, although other, smaller landmarks are disappearing: they range from Harry Secombe's Highway to Rainbow, the children's programme following the Sesame Street format. This Week will be replaced with a series of current affairs programmes going out at 7.30pm, an early slot when the presence of children excludes tough subjects and many potential viewers are on their way home, particularly in the London area that Carlton will serve.

The Broadcasting Standards Council last week drew attention to concern at the dilution in quality of children's programmes and the feeling among programme makers that this year there has been a sharp fall in new commissions.

But these changes hardly reflect the potent forces at work just below the surface. Everywhere in broadcasting there is a sense of uncertainty about what 1993 will bring, a feeling that we are at a watershed, that the full implications of the structural changes created by the Broadcasting Act have much further to run.

Michael Grade, the chief executive of Channel 4, struck a sombre note last week, when announcing programme plans for next year. From January 1, the 10-year-old channel has to battle to raise advertising revenue against a predatory ITV. He warned that the very existence of the minority-interests station was at stake because the arrangement that gave it secure funding - a guaranteed percentage of advertising revenue - had gone. Behind the scenes, his commissioning editors sketched in details: budgets so tight they are reluctant even to order experimental pilots of new programmes.

At Carlton Television, the most eye- catching programme for early 1993 is The Good Sex Guide. GMTV, taking over from TV-am, will be reassuringly down- market: there will be Linda Lusardi with an array of Healthy Hunks and a dating spot, but no semblance of seriousness on Sunday mornings, as a magazine show replaces David Frost, who is going to BBC 1.

Because there is so often a long gap between making programmes and screening them, much of the first nine months of 1993 on ITV has been decided: it will not look that different. But in the longer term, such questions as whether News at Ten should be shifted to make way for entertainment or films will persist. There is every reason for vigilance and no reason to take the ITC's apparent confidence at face value. The times are changing and they are very uncertain.