Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting

As Ant and Dec's comedy crown comes off, the real joke is on ITV
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The Independent Online

Just when you thought things couldn't get much worse for ITV.... Global content director Dawn Airey does a runner to a rival and, just as the ripples stop spreading, along comes Ofcom with both barrels and fines the broadcaster £5.67m – rather higher than the figure that the ground-preparing leaks had suggested. The fines get added to the £7.8m compensation payments already announced.

ITV's executive chairman Michael Grade was suitably contrite – as befits a man who was not at the commercial broadcaster at the time and who had got a "zero tolerance" policy into the public domain before the solids really started flying.

But was the decision to release the Olswang report on Ant and Dec and the British Comedy Awards an hour after the Ofcom announcement evidence of a little too much stage management? It looked like an attempt to get all the bad news out on the same day and blunt the impact of Ofcom's findings.

The sophistication here – and it's a very fine line – is that compliance responsibility lies with tiny Channel Television, which is not part of ITV plc. So ITV, which just happened to show the high-profile programme all over the UK, can throw its hands up in horror and say: "Nothing to do with us Guv."

Ofcom's condemnation of ITV's repeated failures to handle premium rate services fairly, is understandably severe. But in a way the cynicism involved in Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway being handed the People's Choice Award at the British Comedy Awards when actually the prize should have gone to The Catherine Tate Show is almost more shocking. What actually happened remains a bit murky although Catherine Tate had certainly received the most votes at the time the winner was announced.

The Olswang report makes it clear it was understood that Robbie Williams would be happy to present an award if the recipients were Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly. This assurance was apparently given to ensure that Williams turned up, even though it was an assurance that could not have been legitimately implemented. Naturally, Olswang emphasises, there is no suggestion that Robbie Williams or Ant and Dec were aware of any of those issues.

The affair still stinks, no matter how the blame is ultimately apportioned between Michael Hurll Television, the independent production company that broadcast the awards, Channel Television or even ITV. Channel Television is certainly the one now in line for a chunky Ofcom fine.

The watchdog's investigation into ITV has, however, thrown up an interesting issue for the future. The phone rip-offs have been effectively dealt with and are unlikely to be repeated. But a lot of the breeches involved selecting contestants to appear on television when the choice was supposed to be a random process. Often it came down to making sure that there was a reasonably geographic spread of contestants.

Such dodgy dealing cannot, of course, be tolerated. But equally letting completely random people including the totally terrified, the inarticulate and the down right dull on to the screen doesn't make for entertaining television.

In the end it's a question of openness and honesty. All you need to do is break down access into two parts. A pre-qualifying stage, which is indeed random, followed by producer selection from a short list. The key difference with the past is that the criteria should be completely transparent. The notion that television can be completely natural and accurately reflect reality is preposterous.

Next up, fines on the BBC for its misdemeanours, although they are unlikely to be on the same eye-watering scale as ITV.

Then, at last, it will be time for the television industry to put this whole sorry business behind it.

The British Bureaucratic Corporation feels the pain

The BBC has long been a byword for bureaucracy. That's not just because of the mountains of paper, though there are plenty of those. BBC staffers say the issue is more about the endless battles to prise the resources you need to do your job from the corporation's arcane and complex systems.

In recent weeks the BBC's in-house newspaper Ariel, unfairly known as "Pravda", has been highlighting "some of the painful experiences of BBC bureaucracy".

Some of the BBC high-ups started raising eyebrows that the in-house organ was highlighting such uncomfortable truths. Happily the great leader, director general Mark Thompson, indicated that it was permissible to air such concerns in public and his senior apparatchiks instantly decided it was a good idea, too.

Luckily help is at hand for all concerned, courtesy of Sam Moor, who was on secondment to BBC Training from Children's TV. Off her own bat, Moor has produced a series of short cuts to guide people through what Ariel describes as "the bureaucracy labyrinth".

In the old days, you could get fired for free thinking such as that. Now, if she doesn't actually get a pay rise, at least her work has been endorsed as an official piece of BBC training. Small signs of progress in tackling the bureaucratic beast.

Now is Freesat's moment to make a high-definition killing

The launch of Freesat last week by BBC and ITV instantly aroused dark suspicions. Here they were, the old monopolists, trying to hang on to an extra bit of purchase for as long as they could in the digital world.

After all, the original launch of Freeview itself was a piece of institutional opportunism designed to protect the BBC against BSkyB's multi-channel choice. Give the viewers a few extra channels for free and it would act as an inoculation against Sky's subscription strategy, so the Greg Dyke theory went.

The plan has worked remarkably well, so far, and here's another chance to stick one to Sky. As BSkyB has often claimed, competition can be a good thing but why is the BBC wasting public money by replicating something that has existed for years – Sky's free satellite service?

The answers, obviously heavily rehearsed, from BBC director general Mark Thompson and ITV's beleaguered executive chairman Michael Grade, just about came down on the plausible side.

Sky were not really interested in free, their business was based on subscription went the Thompson-Grade line. Certainly, in the early days, Sky sales staff did not seem universally well informed about the availability of the free option when the punters got in touch.

Now, argued Thompson and Grade, you are likely to get a lot of calls trying to convert you to subscription packages should you sign up for free Sky.

The killer argument for Freesat, and the one that makes it intellectually respectable, is the high definition (HD) offering. For a one-off payment of around £200, viewers will get HD channels from both the BBC – including such gems as Wimbledon coverage – and ITV.

The numbers are dramatic. There are nearly 10 million HD-ready flat screens out there – but only something like 600,000 HD subscribers. Then there's the 25 per cent of the population who cannot receive Freeview at the moment even though all of them are paying through the licence fee for channels they cannot receive such as BBC News and BBC Four. So, it may have been slow and long-delayed, but there's definitely a case for giving at least two cheers for the arrival of Freesat.

Raymond Snoddy presents 'Newswatch', the BBC Television viewer access programme

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