on the ITC's new responsibilities

"They're tits, but they are very professional tits." That's the (off-the-record and off-colour) view of one of the ITV companies about the industry watchdog, the Independent Television Commission. A bit harsh, true, but a bit of (back-handed?) compliment as well, given that professionalism will be sorely needed in the next two or so years, as the ITC takes up three issues of central importance to the future of commercial broadcasting in the UK.

The first challenge is to determine exactly how to apply new powers accorded to the ITC in the new Broadcasting Act, under which the watchdog can consider the "public interest" of cross-media mergers. It has already announced it intends to look at the first such combination: Scottish Television's purchase of Caledonian Publishing. Last week, ITC commissioners met to discuss the "process" by which the public interest test will be considered, the ITC confirmed.

Intriguingly, the next merger to be reviewed could well be one that most of us had assumed had already passed all the hurdles: the marriage of Lord Hollick's MAI and Lord Stevens' United News & Media. That controversial deal went ahead in advance of the introduction of more liberal ownership rules in the media sector. To get around the letter of the law, the two companies used so-called "deadlock" arrangements - which, ostensibly, mean that no one "controls" the merged company. Once the new Broadcasting Act comes into force on 1 November, the deadlock provisions will have to be dropped, and the United News & Media combine, which groups newspapers such as the Daily Express and two ITV licences, Anglia and Meridian, will become a "normal" company.

At that point, the deal will be open to scrutiny by the ITC under the public interest test. I'm not suggesting the merger will be unravelled, but it will be annoying to Lords Hollick and Stevens that they have to go through yet another regulatory hoop.

The second big issue on the ITC's plate is the much-mooted, still hazy, plan to rebalance the lop-sided payments made by ITV companies to the Treasury, in the form of tax and their cash bids. Most ITV companies agree that the current licences, which were awarded under a closed auction system, should be altered. It makes no sense that Yorkshire-Tyne Tees has to pay pounds 62m a year to Treasury while Central pays just pounds 2,000.

The ITC has the power to renegotiate the licences six years into the 10-year term. That will mean determining the fair payment level before 1 January, 1999.

But the renegotiation will put at risk some of the pounds 400m received by the Treasury every year from ITV companies. Only the high bidders - YTT, HTV, Carlton, for example - are likely to apply for a renegotiated cash bid. The low payers - Scottish and Central, particularly - will be happy to maintain their risible contributions until the end of the licence period in 2002.

The ITC, as an "independent" statutory body, does not have to make any concession to political exigency. But it is likely to be sensitive to the Treasury's needs as it formulates its approach to licence renegotiation. It will be a tightrope indeed.

The third challenge is probably the most intractable. The ITC, haplessly, is in charge of preparing the way for the introduction of digital terrestrial television. The ITV companies are not at all interested at this stage, and nor is Channel 4. The BBC says it is, but its actions - it has already indicated it will be available on digital satellite, which launches before DTT - speak louder than words. Can the ITC engineer some steadfast commitments from the main commercial broadcasters to ensure DTT's future? Hard slog.

Serious consideration of the big issues will be slowed by the departure of Sir George Russell, the ITC chairman, and the time it takes to find a suitable replacement. One possible candidate, David Elstein, is now out of the running, having jumped ship from Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB to Channel 5, the new TV service scheduled for launch early in 1997. Indeed, most TV executives don't expect progress on the "fair payments" debate until well into next year.

And speaking of Channel 5, just what will happen if the retuning campaign now under way does not reach its onerous target of supplying 90 per cent of those households capable of receiving the signal? Will the ITC step in and punish the licence holders? No way. Indeed, the ITC seems positively serene about the prospect of a late launch. Having already been much criticised for the way in which it awarded the licence in the first place, the regulator cannot afford to weather another controversy. The answer will be a certain laxity about the target launch date, which is probably going to be later than 1 January, given early indications of retuning delays. Another option, which the ITC may well accept, is a "roll-out" of the service, whereby households in those parts of the country unaffected by the retuning problem - parts of the North, for example - get the service on time, while the rest of the nation has to wait. But Channel 5's David Elstein doesn't much like that option, because it could mean some people having to miss the first few episodes of the channel's new soap if they happen to live in the wrong region. Or just as bad, it could mean repeating the early episodes for those who join late, at the risk of annoying those who have already seen the programmes. Advertisers won't like a roll-out either. Elstein professes to be quite comfortable with the 1 January launch date, but says he wouldn't be too bothered by a slippage of a week or two. You heard it here first.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape