Ministers 'killing golden goose' with ITV fees

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The government is in danger of "killing the goose the laid the golden egg" if it continues to force ITV to pay £200m a year in licence fees, Lord Bragg said yesterday.

The government is in danger of "killing the goose the laid the golden egg" if it continues to force ITV to pay £200m a year in licence fees, Lord Bragg said yesterday.

The writer and broadcaster lamented politicians' ignorance of the contribution made by ITV to British television, saying he was "furious" about the lack of understanding of the broadcaster at Westminster.

The South Bank Show presenter said it was "nonsense" that in an era when it faces increasingly stiff competition from multi-channel television, ITV has to pay the government around £200m a year in licence fees for using the analogue spectrum. The media watchdog, Ofcom, is currently reviewing ITV's licence bill and is due to publish a report on its findings in July.

Lord Bragg was speaking at the launch of The People's Channel, a documentary series that he has written and presented to mark the 50th anniversary of ITV in September.

In the five part series, starting in mid-June, he looks back to the heyday of ITV in the late 1950s, when 28 million viewers, about 84 per cent of the total television audience, tuned in to watch Bruce Forsyth in Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

Lord Bragg said that the days when ITV's licences were "a licence to print money" were long gone.

He said: "They're killing the [golden] goose in ITV if they're not careful. They can't continue to hang around its neck the burden of £200m tax.

"There was an attitude of 'let's milk these guys because they've got lots of loot'. That's changed now. Those times have gone."

If ITV is to survive with its public service commitments intact, the cost of its licences should be cut to put it on a level playing field with companies such as BSkyB, he said.

Lord Bragg said: "ITV is at an extremely difficult testing point. It's no good not facing that.

"Sky has been given an incredible amount of licence and favour by the Labour government and before that by the previous government. It gets out of jail free all the time. We pay £200m a year, a special tax just for being ITV. It's just nonsense now, but it's very difficult to shrug it off."

He explained that the idea for The People's Channel came to him at the House of Lords during the debate leading up to the Communications Act of 2003.

Lord Bragg said: "In the Lords, during the Communications Bill, I got furious about the ignorance of Westminster about the contribution of ITV. I just thought they didn't know enough, they didn't appreciate enough, and they were underestimating its contribution."

While the BBC has spent a large amount of time and money on lobbying Parliament, Lord Bragg said that ITV has been backward in increasing its own profile.

He said: "I think ITV took its eye off the political ball from the mid-Nineties. It didn't think it needed to cultivate people whose opinion matters. It was wrong. I don't mean taking people to dinner, I mean telling them what you're doing, because they don't watch the stuff.

"If you want to find the most ignorant 645 people about television, go down the road to the Palace of Westminster - they don't watch it. 'Post-Birt', the BBC was putting in the most almighty PR effort... Channel 4 also had a very good operation and Sky got away with murder. We were out in the cold."

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat culture and media spokesman, said: "He's absolutely right that we don't watch much television but that doesn't mean to say we shouldn't be involved in legislating on it."